Lately, Richard Pitts has lost much of seemingly endless energy he once had.
Ten years after a colorectal cancer diagnosis, Pitts — the founder and director of the Wonder Workshop children’s museum in downtown Manhattan — is nearing the end of that fight, according to family members. They said he’s terminally ill with tumors and other complications finally slowing him down these past few months.
None of that, though, could stop him from watching from a wheelchair on the front porch of his house — bundled under blankets and a stocking cap on the unusually nippy May morning — as dozens of his friends, kids and colleagues rallied in front of his Leavenworth Street home Friday.
For decades in the region, Pitts — or Pittsy, as he is affectionately known — lugged his drums around to share his passion for black history, and he has been one of the most influential storytellers in keeping that history alive in the community. Between classroom field trips to the museum-in-a-house and summer programs over the years, Pitts has likely taught hundreds, if not thousands, of Manhattan’s children, and he always found ways to support local children in need.
Now, it was the community’s turn to bring drums to his house and celebrate Pitts’ story.
Dozens of people turned out for the jubilee to honor the man. Several cars, including a firetruck, drove by the residential street and honked their horns for Pitts. The crowd sang along to Scott Freeby’s trumpet rendition of “What a Wonderful World” a la Louie Armstrong.
They chanted “Ri-chard Pi-itts!” as they marched their way the few blocks from Woodrow Wilson Elementary to his house, and mustering all the energy he could, Pitts chanted right back to them “Wood-row Wil-son!”
The jubilee organizers said they knew Pitts would be upset if anyone became sick on account of celebrating him, so they asked for people to wear masks and maintain social distance guidelines.
So they might have been hidden, but there were smiles under the masks — smiles and tears for the man who has been a light for Manhattan for so many years, people said to Pitts.
“You are our champion,” said Deb Nauerth, principal at Woodrow Wilson. “You are our hero. You are our friend. You are our brother. That light that you’ve brought to all of us, today, we have come to shed that sunshine back to you. We love you so very much.”
“There will never be another Jackie Robinson, or Dr. Martin Luther King, or Wilma Mankiller or Cesar Chavez, or Ghandhi,” said David Griffin, a friend of Pitts and professor in K-State’s College of Education. “We can all also say there will never, ever, be another Richard Pitts.”
A New Jersey transplant to Kansas, Pitts came to K-State to study history but soon found that the state was growing on him, and it suited him well. He has never been a teacher by trade (his wife, Cindy, said it’s more appropriate to say he’s been a “curious man by trade”), but he’s had a knack for connecting children with history, particularly black history like the Underground Railroad.
Through the years, Pitts has been the kind of person to make friends anywhere or even know the grocery store clerks by name, his family said, and even in his feverish dreams, he’s continued to talk about his friends and their families. Pitts is resilient — almost to a fault, his daughter Alicia Pitts said — but he’s stoically fought against the cancer. He gets his energy from socializing with other people, and he’s been frustrated not being able to see people or do household chores like mowing the lawn.
But day-to-day, he’s been amazing, Alicia said.
“It’s a fight, and it’s incredible. He was in the ICU, and after his bowel reconstruction, he was asking, ‘What do we have to do? Let’s do it.’ It shows how much he is willing to fight for his family.”
Had it not been for coronavirus, the street would have probably been packed with hundreds of those friends, said Andrea Fields, a fourth-grade teacher at Woodrow Wilson who helped organize the jubilee.
“Your legacy will live long in all of us, and so many, many people who are not here today,” Fields said. “We are forever thankful for you, your hard work, your dreams — for being a champion to all children. We love you, we love you, we love you.”
“As we walk away, we all walk away better because of you. And we all walk away asking ourselves each day, how can we have more love, like Richard Pitts gives all the world?” Nauerth said tearfully.
In less than a week, nearly 400 people have raised almost $40,000 out of a goal of $130,000 to help Pitts ongoing medical expenses. That fundraiser is available at gofundme.com/f/richard-pitts-medical-Bill.
Speaking in a low but happy voice to his friends, Pitts said he was moved by their tribute to him.
“I will say that it’s been at least 25 years or more that I have had the opportunity to work with most of you,” he said. “And it’s been a pleasure and joy. Kids especially — kids have always been courteous, kind, and obedient to me. I couldn’t ask for anything more, so thank you.”
He said the Wonder Workshop will continue to grow, even as he takes more of a background role in the day-to-day operations.
“We need you, we need you to continue the work of not only Wonder Workshop but the minds of children,” he said. “That’s what is important. We can’t do everything, but everybody can do something. And the help that you give us is doing really something and that means everything to us, I mean everything. So thank you for allowing me to say that.”