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Former writer returns to first profession

Bob Pittman looks back at career, achievements from the other side of retirement

To say that retired Mississippi Economic Council president Bob Pittman was torn between two lovers, or tried to serve two masters, isn’t exactly correct.

In fact, the former journalist-turned-economic developer and statewide business advocate waited for nearly 32 years before getting back into the newspaper business and about a day after his retirement — on April 30 — before he officially filed his first story in the family-owned weekly Lamar (County) Times.

Educated in journalism and the law, Pittman has spent most of his professional life in economic development, first with the Greenwood Industrial Board, from 1961-65, and finally with the MEC, from 1966 until just last month.

Pittman joined MEC as the assistant to the general manger and had responsibility for community development and the new duty of building a working relationship with the state Legislature.

He became the organization’s second CEO in 1968 at the retirement of its founder, M.B. Swayze, who had virtually hand-picked the 33-year-old Pittman to carry on the mission of MEC being the state’s chamber of commerce.

“Following in the footsteps of M.B. Swayze — a man of absolute integrity, ability, and vision — was as great an honor as I could ever receive,” Pittman wrote in a 12-page history of his tenure with MEC that was distributed at the organization’s annual meeting in April.

Speaking by phone to the Mississippi Business Journal from his home on the first full-day of his retirement, Pittman sounded resolute with his decision to retire. He spoke almost excitedly about the adventures that lay ahead, including running a newspaper covering the area around Hattiesburg in which he was raised, maybe writing another book or two, and traveling and visiting grandchildren.

He also spoke with enthusiasm about MEC’s future and of the accomplishments the organization has achieved. Depending on the topic, Pittman said he clearly saw the MEC as taking a leadership role in many of the cutting-edge issues that faced and affected not only Mississippi businesses but Mississippians, as well.

The fact that the MEC stood on such high ground was what first attracted him to the organization 33 years ago.

Through his years of covering the Legislature and writing about education and the changing social climate in Mississippi in the early 1960s for the State Times and later the Jackson Daily News, Pittman said he was “aware of MEC and knew it made profound statement on truth and reality in Mississippi.”

“I was so impressed with the quality of its work and statement of principles,” he said.

Although he loved journalism, Pittman left purely for economic reasons, determined to give his family more than a newspaperman’s salary could provide.

When he was asked to join the MEC organization his excitement was high but his expectations were tame, not thinking he would ever ascend to head the organization. He only knew he loved economic development.

“My best hope was if I’m going to stay in this work I want to be a member of the staff at MEC,” he said. “It was providential. It really was an answer to a prayer.”

Decades of success

Pittman said clearly each decade he was at the MEC the organization had its arching themes and accomplishments and because of its stance on many issues has drawn fire from state and local politicians, business leaders and the general citizenry.

In the 1960s support of public education and a calling for civility as society tackled race relations were two areas MEC’s leadership was felt. It was also during this decade that MEC-sponsored legislation separated the offices of sheriff and tax collector.

By the early 1970s, MEC’s work in the state legislature began to bear fruit and MEC instituted a program on citizenship and free enterprise. The attack on public-sector unions, such as the Mississippi Association of Educators, also was stepped up during the 1970s.

“MEC, over almost 50 years, has been probably the best friend education has had in Mississippi,” Pittman wrote. “But we had to oppose the union agenda of the Mississippi Association of Educators.”

For Pittman, the 1980s are the high watermark of MEC’s work in the legislature when 10 major legislative actions that the organization initiated or supported became law, including appointment of the State Superintendent of Education, Education Reform Act of 1982, beginning of the massive four-lane construction program, adoption of the county unit system and several tort reforms.

“The 1980s were a decade of great achievement by MEC,” Pittman said, calling it the “Golden Decade” for the organization.

Major work in the 1990s has centered around continuing to monitor and modify tort reform issues addressed in the 1980s, as well as the initiating of “Imagine U: The Quest for Character” program with the help of MAE. An ethics and character development program for elementary and high school students, the curriculum was distributed to 1,000 schools last falls and may the most significant work ever tackled by MEC, Pittman said.

A Russian university and several other countries have requested the curriculum and a major anonymous donation of $400,000 was recently given to MEC to help promote the program, he said.

“I think it has almost world changing possibilities,” he said. “So it’s a good way to finish.”

Although there is no doubt the Legislature has been good to business through the years, starting in the 1960s, Pittman said he fears there is an erosion of business support now in the Legislature.

That growing negative attitude has partly been the result of Gov. Kirk Fordice’s often strained relationship with the Legislature, but not all, he said.

“Some is a result of Fordice but it was starting before Fordice,” he said.

A major issue that ties into “Imagine U,” and one that will be significant for Mississippians over the coming years will be the impact of welfare reform. While some have addressed the fallout, Pittman said business still needs to step-up and take part in the changing environment.

“We still have too many Mississippians who look to government to solve their problems,” he said. “Government encourages dependency on government. I think welfare reform encourages people to become more self sufficient (and) that’s a good start.”

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