He has seen 47 men die, watched jumping bodies hit the ground on Sept. 11, 2001, and was one of a handful to personally witness the execution of Timothy McVeigh.
He was also raised by a single teenage mother and was illiterate until the age of 12 in a rough neighborhood in east Baltimore during the 1960s.
For Byron Pitts, 46, these daunting challenges have led to numerous awards.
Pitts, a multiple Emmy award-winning journalist, stopped by Ohio State Wednesday afternoon to kick off the university’s Diversity Lecture and Cultural Arts Series. Pitts is a chief national correspondent for “CBS Evening News” with Katie Couric.
Speaking at a crowded auditorium in Drinko Hall, Pitts commented on his trying childhood. He also spoke about his recently published book, “Step Out on Nothing,” a collection of his life stories and the lessons he’s learned in more than 20 years in journalism.
Pitts credits his success to the will and love of his mother.
“My mom was tougher than most men,” he said. “But never underestimate the power of kindness.”
Pitts graduated from Ohio Wesleyan in Delaware, Ohio, in 1982.
Achieving his life-long goal this year, Pitts was named a Contributing Correspondent for CBS’ 60 Minutes — an admirable feat for someone who was illiterate until the age of 12 and had a stutter until he was 20.
“I saw reading as a Christmas gift that I was finally able to open,” he said. “Often times in life, you appreciate what you don’t have. Words have the ability to change your life.”
Teased by his peers and neglected by his teachers, Pitts said he considered quitting school numerous times. However, those struggles are what made him strong.
“All of us have struggles, and it comes in many forms,” he said. “There really are no struggles, just teachable moments.”
Adamant for change, Pitts said something must be done about the illiteracy rate in America.
“One in seven adults today on average is illiterate,” he said. “It’s not a race problem or a class problem, but an American problem.”
Pitts is nationally recognized for his on-scene coverage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Pitts says he is grateful to have experienced so much, but approaches the subject with caution.
“As human beings we are capable of doing great good and great evil,” he said. “In order for stories to be impactful you have to be personal. You tell the big stories by telling the small stories well.”
Pitts says he doesn’t let emotion get in the way of his storytelling, although it can be tough at times.
“My job is to reflect the emotion of the moment, not my own emotion,” he said. “It’s not my job to report my opinion.”
He said he hopes children continue to receive the literary attention they need as he emotionally asked the crowd to strive for change.
“Words matter,” he said. “They change lives. I know. They changed mine.”