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Robert T. Pittman, 27-year <i>Times</i> editor of editorials, dies at 85

Editor of Editorials Robert T. Pittman, left, and Don Addis, cartoonist for the Evening Independent, received School Bell Awards in 1968.
Editor of Editorials Robert T. Pittman, left, and Don Addis, cartoonist for the Evening Independent, received School Bell Awards in 1968.
Published Mar. 22, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Robert T. Pittman, whose courtly Southern demeanor could soothe the rough edges created by the bluntly worded editorials he wrote for the St. Petersburg Times in four decades, died Saturday at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg after a lengthy illness.

He was 85.

Mr. Pittman served as editor of editorials from 1964, the year after he was hired, until his retirement in 1991. During that time he championed integration, open government, civil liberties and other causes many of his readers considered too liberal for their tastes. A close ally of Nelson Poynter, the Times chairman who hired him, he never shied away from providing a forceful, left-leaning voice in a largely conservative community.

Poynter, he once said, was "absolutely certain, as I am, that a newspaper should not try to reflect a community's views. That's a false issue, in editorial writing, anyway.

"You always consider your audience, of course, but you can't try to reflect the opinions of the community. What do you do, take a poll? You can only be true to your own values."

At the same time, the man who admired President Franklin D. Roosevelt abhorred political figures who pandered to divisive instincts in their constituents, and remained concerned about engaging readers in civil discourse.

"Under Bob's guidance, the Times was a clear and consistent voice for values which were not always popular in their day, but which came to be more universally embraced with the passage of time — causes like civil rights, school desegregation and progressive school policies," said Paul Tash, 60, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Times Publishing Co. "Bob also represented an era when people could disagree strongly but nevertheless maintain a civility, even a gentility, toward those who took the other view. He was always a gentleman."

In an email to the Times, Mr. Pittman's three daughters said they would remember their father for "his soft-spoken guidance and genteel manner that gave power to his pen and inspired those of his staff."

"His tenets of journalistic ethics, creativity and tolerance wove a common thread in everything he wrote as well as how he lived," the daughters wrote.

Under his watch, the St. Petersburg Times, now known as the Tampa Bay Times, increased its coverage of statewide issues, anchored by an aggressive Tallahassee bureau. That wider exposure engendered some enmity. Claude Kirk, for example, Florida's governor from 1967 to 1971, was no fan.

Locals sometimes referred to the Times as "Pravda West" or sported bumper stickers that declared, "The St. Petersburg Times is very well RED," with the last word in bold red letters.

"Nelson's editorial ideas were not always beloved by the establishment community," said Robert Haiman, 78, a former Times executive editor. "I had friends, as did Bob, who said, 'I think the St. Pete Times is a terrific paper but I can't stand your editorial policies.' It was sometimes said with a smile and sometimes not."

The chemistry between Poynter and Mr. Pittman remained strong.

"I'll always believe — and others felt the same way — that Nelson and Bob saw the world in very, very similar ways" and through almost exactly the same lens of editorial policy, Haiman said.

General themes favored the worker over the corporation, civil rights over property rights, and the citizen over the state.

"Bob was clearly your classic Southern liberal," said Martin Dyckman, 77, a former Tallahassee bureau chief who retired from the Times editorial board in 2006. "He spoke with a Southern accent, he was raised in North Carolina, and nothing made him more indignant than old-style Southern reactionary politics and old-style Southern racism."

Eugene Patterson, who took over as editor in 1972, hewed closer to the political center. But he often used Mr. Pittman to help calibrate his own views.

"When Gene was wrestling with a decision, he always took counsel from Pittman," said Haiman, "because he thought he'd get a view that was a slight notch or two above his own and that would help him make that decision."

Andy Barnes, 75, who succeeded Patterson as the chief executive of the Times Publishing Co. in 1988, described Mr. Pittman as a firm believer in open government and a vibrant, challenging press.

"He believed that the purpose of government was to make life better for people," said Barnes, "and he stood by that in the face of some of the most unbelievably virulent attacks by people who thought, 'Well, why are you letting all these people who aren't white get in the way of what we want to do?' "

Still, Mr. Pittman acted as a restraining influence on those to the left of himself.

Over the years, he was honored for his work, especially for his editorials on education. The Florida Education Association awarded him its annual Florida School Bell Award in 1968 for distinguished service to public education. In 1983, the National Education Association's Florida unit recognized Mr. Pittman and the newspaper's editorial board "for their consistently 'pro' public school editorials."

In 1977, he was elected president of the National Conference of Editorial Writers. Several of his editorials were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Robert Turner Pittman grew up in Gates, N.C., just south of the Virginia state line.

"I always wanted to be a journalist,'' he said in 1991. "I published a little newspaper in my family when I was in elementary school. You know, with those little rubber-type printing presses that children have. It's a track I've always been on. How I got on it, I don't know. My mother wanted me to be a lawyer."

Mr. Pittman wrote plays as a child, setting up benches in the garage, coaching friends on their lines and rounding up an audience from the neighborhood.

He was editor of his high school paper in Suffolk, Va., and managing editor of the Ring-tum Phi at Washington and Lee University, where he majored in journalism and roomed with future television anchorman Roger Mudd.

While in college, he worked part-time at the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch and joined the staff after graduating.

He served on the aircraft carriers Franklin Roosevelt and Intrepid during the Korean War. After leaving the Navy, he returned to the classroom.

At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, he earned a master's degree. While at UNC, he met and married Ruth Fike.

Together they headed to Montana, where Mr. Pittman became publisher and wrote editorials for the Glendive Daily Ranger.

News of his first daughter's pending birth, coupled with the Montana winter (25 degrees below zero), inspired a move to Florida. He caught on with the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville as an editorial writer.

What most journalists would have considered a good job was not enough for Mr. Pittman. He wanted a stronger voice and a closer relationship with the community.

"I set about finding the best newspaper in Florida, and I decided it was the St. Petersburg Times, and I set about getting a job here,'' he said.

In 1963, Mr. Pittman later said, Times editor Don Baldwin "rescued me from Jacksonville.''

The following year he became editor of editorials. He later introduced a point-counterpoint editorial format on selected issues.

"When an editorial writer doesn't know the answer to a problem, he frequently describes it as a dilemma," Mr. Pittman wrote in a 1972 memo to staffers. "There are also many dilemmas in the concept of the present editorial page."

Mr. Pittman sold the idea to Eugene Patterson, who had taken over as editor earlier that year. For a time, factual essays on each side of a topic ran on alongside the Times' position.

A fierce human rights advocate, Mr. Pittman canceled a foreign exchange trip in 1978 to Moscow University to protest the imprisonment of a Russian dissident.

At home, he fretted about the future of basic civil liberties endangered by an uninformed public. One lengthy essay cited a contemporary poll with what he considered alarming numbers. For example, 54 percent of the public believed Americans did not have free speech. Fifty-eight percent said the law did not consider criminal defendants innocent until proven guilty.

"To defend against our own weakness and ignorance, Americans clearly need much better books and schools and teachers and courses in history and politics," he wrote.

He spent his retirement traveling with Ruth, who died in December 2013. Mr. Pittman continued to publish stories, cookbooks, family histories, anecdotes and newsletters, most recently for residents of Westminster Palms, where he lived during the past year.

He remained concerned about incoming generations of journalists, and each year the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication awards a scholarship in his name.

"In his wake, Mr. Pittman influenced many editorial writers with his tough, disciplined approach," said Robyn Blumner, who spent 16 years on the Times editorial board and is now the president and chief executive officer of the Richard Dawkins Foundation. "Bob reflected the progressive values of his own good heart and that of . . . Nelson Poynter. We are all better for it."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.