Byron Pitts' Rise from Illiteracy

A chronic stutterer until he was 20, Byron Pitts was diagnosed as functionally illiterate at 12 years old.

Today he is the chief national correspondent for the CBS Evening News and a "60 Minutes" contributor, which he feels is a testament to hard work, dedication, faith, and the presence of a number of helpful people along the way.

Pitts sat down with Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith on Wednesday to share his path, which is chronicled in his new book, "Step Out on Nothing."

The Emmy Award-winning journalist drew inspiration for the title of his book while in church one Sunday morning. He heard a phrase which resonated with him and would ultimately change his life.

"She says step out on nothing. And for people of faith, the suggestion was in difficult moments and struggle, we all have struggle. Step out on your faith," Pitts explained. "Non-believers may say you're stepping out on nothing. But for those who believe in a force greater than themselves, it's this notion you step out on your faith and it will sustain you difficult moments."

Although "Step Out on Nothing" highlights some considerable turmoil and struggle, the underlining theme in Pitts' life as well as his mother and grandmother's lives is faith.

"My mother for most of her life wore a small necklace around her neck. It was a mustard seed encased in a plastic ball. And the belief was from the scripture that if you have faith in the mustard seed you can move mountains," Pitts said. "And my family, they've always had that kind of mustard seed faith that they can move mountains. They have move mountains out of my way certainly."

As a well behaved "little goofy kid with the coke bottle glasses," Pitts managed to pass first and second grade in the Baltimore public school system without being able to read.

"I was a picture reader early on. My mother tells me that basically I would read pictures. I was blessed with a good memory, I could memorize things. She would work hard with me. I would memorize sections of books," he said.

When Pitts began having difficulty in math, he was tested and they discovered he couldn't read the directions. He was then classified as "functionally illiterate."

But with his mother's steadfast love, Pitts overcame the obstacles.

Smith pointed out that Pitts' mother is truly the star of his book.

"Without question. She is a rock. And I think one of the points I hope to make in the book is to encourage people that all of us have struggles. But all of us, if we look hard enough, will find people who sustain us, who encourage us, who tell us that we can when we think we can't," Pitts explained. "And certainly my mother has always been that person for me. She's that person today, that on those good days she's encouraging me, on those bad days she encourages me."

It may be hard for some to imagine that a child who is functionally illiterate at 12 years old and who stuttered until he was 20 would end up in the field of journalism, let alone a chief national correspondent and a "60 Minutes" contributor.

"Not bad. Not bad," Pitts joked. "And it's one of the things in the book - is to say that there's nothing special about me. I'm not blessed with tremendous athletic ability. I'm not the brightest guy in the world. Certainly I work hard as we all do in our business and so many people work hard."

Pitts attributes his success by being surrounded by "regular folks," including coaches, teachers, the priest from his high school and his college professors.

"People, who on their own, regular folks who 'stepped out on nothing' to say an encouraging word to help me out," he said.

Pitts pointed out that his childhood illiteracy is not rare and that an estimated 20 million people are illiterate.

"If that were a state, it would be the second largest state in the United States," he said. "Thirty million people who struggle and have shame. And I can relate to that shame. And the book is to encourage people that you can do it."

To read an excerpt from "Step Out on Nothing," click here.
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