Ask almost anyone in Manhattan and they’ll tell you a story about Richard Pitts.
They might tell you about how his Wonder Workshop — a museum/day camp/afterschool hangout — instilled in some child a love of learning. Or they’ll tell you about his tours of the Underground Railroad and Kansas’s abolitionist history. They might have seen him in Dawn of Day, the documentary about Wabaunsee County’s role in the fight against slavery. Maybe they attended one of the jubilant drum circles that the Wonder Workshop hosted every September, or the standing-room-only soul food supper that raised money for the Workshop every spring.
For the Young Writers’ Workshop, which the Kansas State Department of English hosts each summer for aspiring middle-school writers, Mr. Pitts was a star attraction. We would invite him to join us on the first afternoon of our week-long workshop. On these Monday afternoons, when our young writers were still a bit dazed and still growing comfortable with each other, Mr. Pitts created an environment of warmth and respect. He began with his drum and a little call-and-response, and then eased into a story from his childhood. It was not a pretty story. It began with the thrills of a boardwalk carnival and then brought us to a seaside curio museum where a diorama depicted Africans — his ancestors — as barbarians. He told the story with his voice, his drum, and his whole body, bringing his young audience right along with him to the startling denouement.
The lesson in storytelling was never lost on the young writers: detail, tonal shift, commitment, and vulnerability. One by one they shared their own stories, with Mr. Pitts paying as rapt attention to them as they had to him. Some of the bolder ones spoke first and he cheered them on, and then he turned to the more timid writers and encouraged them to participate. He truly believed that everyone has a story to honor. By the end of the afternoon our young writers stood a little taller, spoke a tad louder, trusted each other a bit more. The atmosphere of the Young Writers’ Workshop had been, thanks to Mr. Pitts, firmly established.
It’s a bit of a platitude to say that one life can affect so many, but in the case of Richard Pitts, nothing else would be quite accurate. His was an essential presence in our community, and he has left us all with larger hearts for having known him.
— Katy Karlin, Associate Professor and Director for the Young Writers’ Workshop