Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - May 29, 2020

Storyteller, teacher, drummer, friend

It was more than 30 years ago that I first met Richard, and that first encounter said a lot about the kind of man he was. My elderly widowed neighbor Teddy was having health problems and he was mowing her lawn. He didn’t really live close enough to call Teddy a neighbor, but he was always close enough to help when someone needed it.

Richard had a way of connecting with people, no matter their ages. He was a natural storyteller, and he could relate historical events without lecturing. When husband Art first met him, he picked up on Richard having a not-quite-Kansas accent and immediately asked him where he was from. He was from New Jersey, but had majored in history at the university here, met the woman who became his wife, liked Manhattan and decided to stay.

And Manhattanites liked Richard being here. He was one of those people who make you smile the minute you see them.

Richard loved kids and loved teaching. Somehow he managed to make a living from something he called the Wonder Workshop Children’s Museum - an arts, sciences and humanities program he helped create for local children. One summer, daughter Katie attended his classes in mask-making and cooking.

"I always enjoyed my time at the Wonder Workshop, where we spent time learning about science and history and how to cook a few things (spatula included, lol)," she said.

Remembering the spatula incident made me laugh. The kids were making some sort of concoction in a blender, but someone forgot to remove the spatula before turning it on. But in true Richard form, he was unfazed. He encouraged the kids to experiment because it was part of the learning process.

He was passionate about many things, including the history of the Underground Railroad in this part of Kansas. He was the local expert on this section of the railroad - one of the "spurs" by which escaped slaves could reach freedom in Canada before and during the Civil War. He authored two books on the subject and was the featured historian and narrator in "Dawn of Day: Stories from the Underground Railroad," a documentary about the railroad in Wabaunsee County just southeast of Manhattan.

In spring 2002, I arranged for Katie's third grade class to participate in one of Richard's tours of Underground Railroad sites in the area. Art, Art's mother Donna, 92 at the time, and I joined the bus full of energetic students. It was Donna's first ride on a school bus and the first time she had a chance to chat with a black man for any length of time. Katie said the experience was one of her favorite memories of Richard.

"Richard made the history important and interesting to us white third graders, in a way that probably hadn’t been done before," she told me.

Whatever he did involved some sort of hands-on learning. He loved to do drumming workshops at events in town or in local schools. The joy he exhibited was as palpable as the beating of his drums. I wanted more students to experience that joy so I arranged for him to perform at Katie’s school when she was in junior high.

In more recent years, daughters Mariya and Katie and I attended his soul-food dinners, whose purpose was to raise money for the Wonder Workshop. Hundreds of people bought tickets for the dinners, which included fried chicken made from Richard’s own recipe, macaroni and cheese, green beans, collard greens, corn bread and desserts. People from all ages, races and walks of life were in long-zigzag lines waiting to partake of the food while hoping the chicken wouldn't run out before they got there. Mariya commented that it was one of the most diverse groups she’d ever seen assembled in one place in Manhattan.

"Richard Pitts was the kindest and most caring man I've ever met," Mariya said. "He was always joyful, patient, and so willing to share his stories, knowledge, and experiences. And he was always willing to hear other's stories as well. Whenever talking to him, you always felt like you had his full attention and genuine interest, no matter how seemingly small or potentially insignificant what you were saying was. He had a deep love of history and community, and it was always wonderful to stop and chat with him whenever or wherever I saw him in Manhattan."

Katie has the same sentiments about him.

"Richard Pitts was a very special man," she told me. "Although I had not seen him in a few years, hearing of his passing made me incredibly sad. He was a pillar of the Manhattan community - he made people feel valued and was always looking for ways to get people more involved in history, education, and their community."

We saw Richard at many community-wide events, but we also knew him on a more personal level. He always took a special interest in our family, and he even attended Katie’s senior recital at the university's All Faiths Chapel in fall 2014.

He won many awards, among them the Community Social Work Advocate Award from K-State's social work program in 2018 and the Spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. Award in 2017. In May 2012, I wrote a column, "Leading by example," after I attended a ceremony celebrating a community leadership award he received that year.

He was a steady presence in our lives for a long time and when I picture him, I immediately see his broad, welcoming smile. And I can almost feel his strong hug enveloping me and hear him asking how our family is doing.

But I won't have that opportunity again. Richard died earlier this month from cancer. The newspaper described him as a "champion of children," which he certainly was. But to me, he was, most of all, my friend.

Top-left: Richard on the bus explaining to Katie's third-grade class about the Underground Railroad; top-center: after receiving his 2012 community leadership award, Richard entertains; bottom-left: leading a drumming session at Riley County Grade School; right: Richard and Katie.

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