From the archives: Businessman, boat club member sails past 90

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

From the archives: This story on O.L. Pitts appeared in the April 3, 2006 edition of the Fort Worth Business Press.

The Monday after celebrating his 90th birthday with a crowded party at the Fort Worth Boat Club, Oliver L. Pitts put on his suit and tie and drove to his office.

It may sound mundane for a man whose birthday party was full of messages from luminaries such as Ted Turner and Walter Cronkite, a man who is successful in business and is celebrated in the sailing world for his contributions to the America’s Cup race. But for Pitts, that simple ritual is a key to his longevity and continued zeal.

“I still get up every morning, shave, shower, and put on a coat and tie, and go to the office. I think it does you good to have something to do and keep your mind active. That may sound pretty simple, but I think it does a lot for a person,” he says.

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Pitts’ primary business is currently Facility Management. Until recently, he owned the historic White Horse Tavern, and in the past, he has run Construction Design Associates, Western Reality and Medical Facilities. His companies primarily build and sometimes own and operate nursing homes.

“In the late 1970s, I was the 17th largest in the U.S. in terms of beds owned,” he says.

Pitts may see his philosophy as simple, but for many of his friends, family and acquaintances, that straightforward formula has made him something of a legend.

“O.L. really brought that Texas spirit to the America’s Cup,” says Halsey Herreshoff, a boat designer and head of the America’s Cup Hall of Fame in Briston, R.I., who attended the party. “When asked to help out with the America’s Cup, a lot of people would say, ‘That would be nice.’ With O.L., it was, ‘Let’s do it right now.’ That’s the way he is and it really helped as he supported many of the boats that we used to compete in America’s Cup,” he says.

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Pitts was a big supporter of the America’s Cup races in the 1970s and 1980s, when cable TV magnate Ted Turner and future winner Dennis Conner were heavily involved in the yacht race, which dates back to 1851.

The corollary to Pitt’s simple philosophy of getting up and going to work each day fits in with his continuing fascination with sailing.

“I think you have to have some recreation to go along with it and I’ve been very fortunate to have sailing as a passion,” he says.

It was not necessarily a passion that started out auspiciously. Born in Alexandria, La., Pitts and his family moved to Fort Worth when he was seven. After graduating from Central High School, Pitts worked for Texas Electric. In 1936, he bought a 15-1/2-foot snipe sailboat, named it after his then-girlfriend and went on his first sail during a windy day at the Lake Worth Sailing Club. Not knowing how to tack the boat, he beached the boat and walked back to the club.

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“I got it in my blood though. I stuck with it. I liked it and I liked sailing in the wind, so I began sailing in the regattas out here at the lake,” he says.

He also began winning. One story told at his birthday celebration was the time the Eagle Mountain Yacht Club didn’t want him competing in their races because he always won.

“So O.L. got a group of women sailors together and called them O.L.’s Angels and they won the race,” recalled one of his longtime employees, Dottie Graves.

Graves and her sister, Marty Bennett, worked for Pitts from the mid-60s to the mid-90s.

“He is a very hands-on guy, very smart and knows what he wants. He can be tough, but it’s worth it because he wants it done right. But when it all worked out, he made sure you knew that you had done your part. We started out just working for him, but he became a very good friend to both of us,” she says.

Bennett says the two met Pitts at the Lake Worth Sailing Club.

“We were just staring out and we were doing secretarial work around town and he said that was what he needed. So I began to work with him and before long Dottie joined and the business just grew and grew. At one time we had 40 to 50 nursing homes in Texas and a couple in Maryland,” she says.

At his birthday party, Pitts danced to several Frank Sinatra songs. He believes he has all of the popular singer’s albums and initially saw the singer when he was with the Tommy Dorsey Bank playing at Casino Beach, a dance hall on the shores of Lake Worth. He also saw Sinatra on his last tour with Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr. – to say he is a student of Sinatra and big band music would be putting it mildly.

“Sometimes I play a tape I have of Sinatra singing with the Tommy Dorsey [Band] on the boat and ask people who it is and they usually don’t know. Sinatra didn’t get that pizzazz until he got with Nelson Riddle in the late 40s or early 50s. Riddle gave him that pizzazz,” he says.

Pitts and his wife, Berneice, have been married 62 years. The two went to school together, and then married before he went in the service during World War II. They have one child, Pamela McIntosh, and four grandchildren. “We went to school together and since my last name was Nichols and his was Pitts, we were pretty close in school, so we knew each other, but we didn’t really date then,” she says.

Until recently, Pitts, along with several other investors, was the owner and operator of the White Horse Tavern in Newport, R.I., a tavern drenched in history. The nation’s oldest continuously operating tavern (since 1687) was once a meetinghouse for Colonial Rhode Island’s General Assembly and Pitts boasts that “George Washington drank here.”

“When the country was celebrating its 200th anniversary, we were getting ready for our 300th,” jokes Pitts.

Pitts bought the White Horse with fellow Fort Worth businessman Lee Smith and two other investors in 1980 when it came up for auction. Newport, a sailing port on the East Coast, was already a prime stop for sailors such as Pitts and his friend, Turner. “Someone said it was for sale and Turner, I think it was, said, ‘O.L. you ought to buy it.’ So we did,” he says.

The sale to a couple of Texas businessmen did not put everyone in Newport at ease, according to Herreshoff.

“There were a few people who thought they were going to turn it into a Tex-Mex restaurant and serve nachos or something, but that didn’t turn out to be the case at all. They refurbished the place and now it’s considered one of the best restaurants in the city,” he says.

It is also considered the “Northeast Outpost of the Fort Worth Boat Club,” with the boat club’s burgee (a triangular flag with the outline of a Texas longhorn) nestled among the dark-beam ceilings, cavernous fireplace and uneven plank floors.

Fort Worth Boat Club member Scott Shirley recalls going there with his wife, Brenda, in 1988 and receiving the royal treatment when employees realized the two were boat club members.

“Our waiter immediately recognized the Texas longhorn design, although the blazer patch looked more like a Guernsey. He told us this was the Northeast Station of the Fort Worth Boat Club and brought us free drinks. We were given the royal treatment. That’s the kind of influence O.L. carries,” he says.

Pitts current boat is the Paki II. The name is a combination of his daughter’s first name and his first grandchild’s first name, Kimberly. The boat is a 35-foot Santana model. Pitts still sails as often as possible.

Pitts credits sailing with giving him the opportunity to meet many of the people that both attended and sent congratulations to him at his birthday party.

“I wouldn’t have met a lot of people, both celebrities and just some great people … were it not for sailing, and as I’ve grown older I’ve made new friends. I’ve been very fortunate,” he says.

As competitive as Pitts is in a sailboat race, he does not like to see sailboat racing in general and the America’s Cup in particular, become more corporate.

“You used to be able to sponsor a boat if you were a millionaire. Now you have to have a couple of billion at least,” he says.

Pitts says sailing in general has become more competitive at the cost of sportsmanship and he bemoans that fact.

“When I was sailing and racing, if someone broke something on their boat and you had an extra piece of equipment you gave it to them, no questions asked. As the boats got bigger, the egos did too. It’s gotten out of hand. I’d like to see that fellowship return to sailing.

“It’s like everything else, influence has taken over and sportsmanship is disappearing. I liked that Corinthian [amateur racing fellowship] part of the sport. If there is one thing I could change it would be that,” he says.

That spirit still exists in Pitts. In the bar at the Fort Worth Boat Club is an old Navy ship’s brass bell, mounted on a column. There is a plaque with the inscription, “He who rings the bell in jest, buys a drink for all the rest.” According to boat club member Scott Shirley, ringing the bell during a crowed regatta party can cost as much as $7,000.

“O.L. is the club’s biggest bell ringer. That’s the kind of guy he is,” he says.

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