O.L. Pitts: Fort Worth’s America’s Cup racer still living large at 100

O.L. Pitts former commodore of the Fort Worth Boat Club will turn 100-years-old as the boat club turns 88-years-old.

O.L. Pitts, who turned 100 years old March 23, still does what he has done every day for much of his life – put on his coat and tie and drive to the office.

He doesn’t do quite as much business as he once did.

“I’ve been in about every business there is here except the cattle business,” Pitts said in a recent interview.

He has been in the nursing home business – building and operating more than 100 nursing homes throughout Texas over the last 50 years. He has also been in the oil business, the real estate business, the construction business and the design business with four architects and an engineer on staff.

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He owned Citizens National Bank in Weatherford until he sold it a few years ago, and for 25 years he owned and operated America’s oldest restaurant and tavern, the legendary White Horse Tavern in Newport, Rhode Island, which he sold in 2006, shortly before turning 90.

And, in all his spare time, Pitts raced sailboats all over the world and became one of the world’s biggest supporters and promoters of the America’s Cup sailing competition.

Beginning in 1964, he led syndicates that supported several Cup defenders and challengers, including “Courageous,” the boat Ted Turner raced to victory in 1977.

“That was a magical summer in 1977,” L.J. Edgcomb, bowman for “Courageous,” told Fort Worth Business at Pitts’ 100th birthday celebration at Shady Oaks Country Club. “O.L. made a huge difference in America’s Cup racing,” Edgcomb said.

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Cable mogul and sailor Turner, Gary Jobson (tactician on “Courageous” and ESPN commentator for six Cup matches) and Edgcomb were among about 220 friends and family celebrating Pitts’ triple-digit birthday at Shady Oaks recently.

Currently ambassador at large for the Fort Worth Boat Club on Eagle Mountain Lake, Pitts says he and his long-time friend, the late Lee Smith, “belonged to a lot of yacht clubs and took FWBC burgees to all of them. We got a lot of people involved … Walter Cronkite belonged … Ted Turner still pays his dues.

“Perry Bass and I built ‘Mariner,’” he said. That was the first America’s Cup syndicate and 12-meter boat the Fort Worth Boat Club supported. Turner raced “Mariner” in preliminary rounds leading up to the 1974 challenge and won the big race in “Courageous.”

When “Australia II” finally won in 1983 and took the Cup away from the United States for the first time in 132 years, it was “do or die” to get it back. Pitts said he and Smith “and a lot of the top business people from Fort Worth” started the America II Syndicate specifically to bring the America’s Cup home.

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Pitts said he made 15 round trips to Australia in the two years leading up to the 1987 races in Perth, purchasing a condo there and staying for months at a time to help provide everything needed to challenge Australia and win the Cup back, which the United States did with “Stars and Stripes” in 1987. Pitts was involved in all the challenges from 1971 until about the early 1990s.

Pitts has been hooked on sailing since the day he bought his first sailboat – a 15 ½-foot used wooden snipe in the summer of 1936.

For most of his life, he has raced all kinds of small boats – snipes and seagulls and lightnings, a Newport 30 and his last boat, “Paki II,” a Santana 35, winning weekend regattas mostly on small lakes throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Florida and Oklahoma.

He says he loves “the speed and the wind and the water rushing by” and has never crewed but always been at the helm on the low side of his boats to be as close to the water as possible.

He once had four lightnings (19-foot dinghys) and when someone asked him why, he said, “Because I just sold one.”

“Sailing is not a rich man’s sport,” he says. “Anybody can afford to sail a small boat and have a lot of fun doing it, but the bigger the boat, the bigger the crew, and the more people you have on the boat, the more fun it is. You’re only as good as your crew, but the better racer you are, the better the racers who want to crew for you. Everybody wants to be on the fastest boat.”

And, boats, especially the old wooden boats, required a lot of sanding and varnishing to keep them at their fastest.

“In the old days, boats were made of wood, and you had to do a lot of work on them to keep competitive. If I wasn’t racing, I was working on a boat,” Pitts recalled. “I just got a kick out of it. You meet a lot of good guys sailing. I never met a sailor I couldn’t put up with … I enjoy golf almost as much now.”

In December 2015, Pitts sold his last two nursing homes, 254 beds between them, which he designed and built for “somewhere between $2,000 to $3,000 a bed” and sold for $96,000 a bed.

“I had already built some residences in Ridglea when I ‘accidently’ built a couple of nursing homes about 1965, and that’s when I hit gold,” Pitts said, reviewing his amazing business and yacht-racing history at the urging of Fort Worth Business.

“First, I wanted to be a journalist. I really did. My first real job was as a cub reporter for the Telegram. Then I went to the Fort Worth Press in the advertising department. I earned $75 to buy my first boat working for the Fort Worth Press,” he said.

A “poor kid, raised by a single mother,” Pitts as a young boy delivered newspapers for $2 a week and sacked groceries on Saturdays for another dollar a week.

“I also carried groceries a couple of blocks for a little old lady who paid me an extra nickel at the end of the day on Saturdays. That was a lot of money. You could go to the picture show for 10 cents,” he pointed out.

After graduating from Central High School in 1934, Pitts hitch-hiked from his Arlington Heights neighborhood to the old Texas A&M satellite campus (it later became the University of Texas at Arlington) for two years, earning three years of college credit and working and sailing full time.

During World War II he served in the Army Air Corps and was stationed in Naples, Italy in 1945. Even then he couldn’t keep away from sailing. He bought a small boat to sail in the Bay of Naples the last six months of the war. When he returned from World War II in 1946, he resumed sailing every weekend, primarily on Eagle Mountain Lake.

He first won the FWBC Annual Regatta in the seagull class in 1950 and won it again many times over the years in whatever class he was sailing. He is the longest-running race committee chairman in the boat club’s history, elected to that office in 1960, ’61,’62 and ’63. He served as commodore in 1966 and ’67 and won the annual Commodore’s Race in 1968 and 1975.

“I’m a racer. I don’t give two hoots about just sailing,” Pitts said. “I’ve always been that way. When I got into a sailboat, I was ready to race.”

He continued to race until a torn rotator cuff finally stopped him a couple of years ago. (“Doctors have warned me not to sail, but it doesn’t hurt my golf swing any,” he confided.)

Pitts built his own Cabana No. 18 and the duplex just behind the clubhouse, which he gave to the club.

“In the early days when the club needed something, the members just all chipped in and donated. When we needed to do something, we got together and did what had to be done,” he said.

“We’ve gone through wet days and dry days, but we’ve always kept boats in the water,” Pitts noted. “I remember a time when the [Eagle Mountain] lake was so full it almost reached the roof of the Doggie Bar [at the FWBC], and one summer when the water was so low we drove a bulldozer right out into the dry harbor and started dredging it. Then a big rain came along, and we almost didn’t get the bulldozer out in time.”

Pitts’ last big international race was the 1999 “J-22 World Championship,” in which he sailed a boat he called, “Grumpy Old Man.” He was 83 and says the average age of his crew was 80.

“I didn’t come in last,” he noted.

Pitts has been a major benefactor of the Junior Sailing Program since starting it as a Sea Explorer program and has won some of Boy Scouting’s highest awards, including the Silver Antler and the Spurgeon Award for outstanding service to youth.

His great-grandson, Christophe Chaumont, is now commodore of the FWBC Junior Fleet.

At 100, Pitts is the oldest member of the New York Yacht Club as well as the FWBC.

“I’m the oldest wherever I am, whatever I’m doing … I know where all the bodies are buried,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes during a recent visit to his office, where he drives himself to work, impeccably dressed in suit and tie, almost every day.

Advice from a centenarian

The secret for living 100 good, productive years, is to “just get up and do what you gotta’ do every day. Put on your coat and tie, and go to the office,” Pitts says.

“My best advice in business has always been, ‘If you make a deal, it’s got to be a good deal for all sides concerned or it’s not a good deal, period.”

So, why did he never move to New York or Miami or San Diego or Newport, where he had both sail boats and large cruisers as well as has hundreds of great friends over the years?

“This is where everything is: all my roots. Fort Worth is home,” Pitts said. “I’ve met a lot of good people – good, good, people, and the (Fort Worth) Boat Club is where I’ve met a lot of them.”

Owning a piece of American history

O.L. Pitts and his long-time friend and business associate, the late Lee Smith of Fort Worth, had been frequenting the historic White Horse Tavern in Newport, R.I. for years when they bought it – America’s oldest tavern and restaurant – in 1981.

Established in 1673 and “serving America for more than 350 years” – the White Horse Tavern has long been a favorite of the New York Yacht Club, which has its on-the-water headquarters and the America’s Cup Museum in Newport.

“A lot of ‘blue-bloods’ came into the Tavern – Kennedys and Rockefellers, Duponts and Vanderbilts – half of Wall Street, all the big names in business. Some of them have their own islands around there – Dave Gamble of Proctor and Gamble fame has a whole island.

“It was a very formal place,” Pitts said. “We kept navy blue blazers for guys to wear just in case they didn’t have one with them when they wanted to stop by… Guys had to wear jackets in the Tavern back then. It’s not quite so formal now.”

Statesmen, commoners and generals were stopping by the White Horse Tavern for food and drink 100 years before the American Revolution, and the site’s history notes that George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette made a stop or two to drink and dine.

“I always stopped there for Sunday brunch,” Pitts said. “Breakfast is my favorite meal.”

He sold the tavern 10 years ago.

“I was going to be 90, and a guy wanted to buy it for three times its appraised value so I decided it was time to sell. Another fellow bought it from him, and I think he’s taking good care of it, but it’s not so formal anymore,” Pitts noted.

FWBC honors Pitts

The Fort Worth Boat Club at Eagle Mountain Lake is hosting an Opening Day Gala and Celebration of Commodore O.L. Pitts 100th Birthday benefitting the Starboard Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is “to support the facilities and programs that promote the sport of sailing, maritime education and sportsmanship.”

Festivities start at 1730 hours (5:30 p.m.) on April 9 with the traditional opening day ceremony marking the beginning of a new yachting year. The gala begins at 1830 hours (6:30 p.m.), featuring music by the Mario Cruz Group “In the Tradition,” a cocktail buffet and live and silent auctions. The ceremony and gala are open to the public. Tickets are $75.