By: Jenny B. Davis
| photography by Alex Lepe |
O.L. Pitts, Fort Worth businessman, international sailboat racer, and staunch supporter of America’s Cup sailing competition, turned 100 on March 23. We recently visited with him and his wife, Norma, at their picturesque home on the fifth fairway of Shady Oaks golf course in Westover Hills.
A modern day Renaissance man, Pitts still drives himself to work every day. He has been “up and down and around and a millionaire two or three times and in just about every business in Fort Worth,” he said.
Pitts built and operated more than 100 nursing home facilities in Texas over the last 50 years. He sold the last two in December 2015. Pitts has also been in the real estate business, the oil business, and the construction and design business. He owned Citizens Bank in Weatherford until a few years ago.
In 1981, Pitts and Fort Worth businessman Lee Smith bought the historic White Horse Tavern in Newport, Rhode Island—the oldest and most storied tavern and restaurant in America, established in 1673. Frequent patrons included the Duponts, the Vanderbilts and the Kennedys.
It was in Newport where he and Norma met 15 years ago.
After owning and operating the White Horse Tavern for 25 years, Pitts sold it in 2006. It was a good investment, he said.
Today, the immaculately groomed Pitts sips chilled red wine, (he will have his Johnny Walker Red scotch later in the day) and talks about his love of sailboat racing. He is the oldest member of the Fort Worth Boat Club as well as the New York Yacht Club. Pitts has raced sailboats all over the world. He won weekend regattas on lakes in Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and Louisiana.
Pitts’ last international race was the 1999 “J-22 World Championship.” He was 83 and sailed a boat called “Grumpy Old Man.” Pitts said that the average age of his crew was 80.
Pitts first won the Fort Worth Boat Club Annual Regatta in the seagull class of 1950. He won it in many classes many times over the years. He was the longest-running race committee chairman in the boat club’s history. He served as commodore in 1966 and 1967 and won the Commodore’s Race in 1968 and 1975. He now serves as ambassador at large.
In 1964, Pitts established syndicates to support America’s Cup competitors, one of which was “Courageous,” the boat that cable magnate, Ted Turner, raced to triumph in 1977.
Pitts and Fort Worth businessman, Perry Bass, became friends in the mid-1930s. “Perry started sailing with Turner, and, of course, I had raced against Turner in other boats. When Perry became a member of the New York Yacht Club, he was planning to build a boat called “Mariner” for Ted to race in the America’s Cup,” he continued. “I was involved in that. We shared the expenses, and that was the first America’s Cup syndicate the Fort Worth Boat Club supported.”
Turner raced “Mariner” in the preliminaries up to the 1974 challenge.
Pitts was involved in all the challenges from 1971 until the early 1990s. He was instrumental in forming America II Syndicate when Australia took the Cup away from the United States for the first time in 132 years. He organized the top business people from Fort Worth and worked for two years to provide everything needed to challenge Australia and win the Cup back to the United States. They did it with “Stars and Stripes” in 1987.
Pitts’ mother, a single parent, worked at a grocery store to support the family. She was the one person who influenced him the most in life.
When Pitts was nine years old, he got a paper route. “They let me out of school to go downtown and throw my papers,” he said. On Saturdays, he sacked groceries at the store where his mother worked.
Pitts attended Central High School, and, after graduating in 1934, he got a job at the Star-Telegram as a cub reporter. “I always wanted to be a journalist,” he said. He lost his enthusiasm when the paper sent him out to cover lectures. “I finally went to work at the Fort Worth Press in the advertising department, and that’s where I made $75 to buy my first boat.”
Pitts attended the old Texas A&M satellite campus for two years. He earned three years of college credit while working and sailing full time.
Pitts raced until he was 98 years old when a torn rotator cuff and his doctor’s advice stopped him.
“I’ve outlived all of my friends, and I miss a lot of them,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t had many bumps along the road.”
The secret to longevity, says Pitts: “Have something to do and keep your mind active.”
By: Jenny B. Davis