Anita SmithAnita Smith operates a Birmingham-based writing company, Anita Smith and Company, Inc. She specializes in writing about health and business and has written several nonfiction books about health-related institutions and distinguished health professionals. She has been named a Distinguished Alumna of what is now the University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences. She is the first journalist inducted into the Alabama Healthcare Hall of Fame (2014).

DrJamesPittman PatchWhen you have long known someone who is especially memorable, sometimes it can be difficult to pick out one single memory that stands out above all others in terms of your interaction with that person. But, where Dr. Jim Pittman is concerned, I have absolutely no difficulty in picking out my one single most outstanding memory of interacting with him. This memory came out of something that occurred during the heyday of Dr. Pittman’s leadership as Dean of the School of Medicine at UAB.

I came to know Dr. Pittman in the mid-1960s, not long after I began covering health-related news for The Birmingham News. For decades I would write about Dr. Pittman – about his own many accomplishments and also about his views and memories concerning the accomplishments of others. In my early career, I interviewed Dr. Pittman for newspaper articles. Later, in conjunction with book projects I was doing through my writing company, I interviewed him for various books. These interviews covered a period of decades that extended into his later years. Several years ago, after he had incurred stroke-inflicted damage, he did a really insightful interview for me for a book project I was doing. I was amazed at the insights he was able to provide despite limitations to his ability to communicate. That was the last interview I would ever do with Dr. Pittman, and it reaffirmed that which I already knew: that he was driven by the powerful duo of an incredible mind and a strong determination.

 M98 15P 0003 PittmanJAThis most vivid memory is one of interacting with him when there was a dispute, an academic fight, among some of the leading officials and medical faculty members on UAB’s campus. This particular fight related to matters of power and control – control over decision-making, over distribution of funds, and ultimately, over who respects whom, and who does not respect whom.

At the Birmingham News we received letters and phone calls about if from angry, interested parties. The anger associated with this fight grew. Early one week, there were resignations and threats of more resignations from some valued medical experts and administrators at UAB. In front-page coverage, we reported the resignations and the threats of more resignations. However, our reports were sketchy, because our knowledge was sketchy about this issues that were fueling all this anger.

Early on a Thursday morning, my editors assigned me an in-depth article about this controversy for Sunday. My first step was to identify interested parties to interview. Now, I will tell you that I had no trouble at all in locating some of these interested parties and convincing them to consent to interviews. In fact, they had been seeking me out for days, anxious to tell their sides of this story.

To obtain a fair, multi-sided picture of the issues, I needed to interview the top leader of UAB’s School of Medicine. Rather than just call him, I drove over to UAB to seek him out in person. I knew I needed to find him quickly. News outlets tend to move fast. The page on which this story would appear already had been identified – the front page of one of the Sunday paper’s widely-read inside sections. The layout-and-design schedule for that section didn’t have any wiggle room. I had to complete and submit the article by late Friday.

When I arrived in Dr. Pittman’s office at UAB, his longtime secretary/assistant, Mary Gilmer, greeted me with an all-knowing smile.

“Hello, Mary,” I said. “You have that look on your face – like you know why I’m here.”

“Oh, I know all too well, Anita,” she said, frowning g and shaking her head in concern about the circumstances at hand. “These people, these people ... These physicians and administrators doing this arguing back and forth. They are going to drive poor Dr. Pittman to his grave. Here we are, with all these great things going on at the UAB Medical Center, and these talented people are all mad at one another and saying they are going to leave … It’s just terrible.”

“Yes, Mary, it’s very unfortunate,” I said. “But, you know, this has gone so far that we’re having to write about it. After all, I work for a newspaper. And this is big news about something very important to this community and state – the future of UAB. Is Dr. Pittman in? Could I see him? Or if he’s busy, can you tell him that I really need to interview him about this? I’d like to request an interview that could take place today, and no later than tomorrow.”

She pursed her lips, shook her head vigorously, spread her arms out in an “I can’t help you” gesture, and said, “Anita, Dr. Pittman knew you would be trying to get in contact with him about this. He said to tell you that he understands that you have to ask, but that his answer is ‘No.’ He said, ‘Tell Anita I’m not going to get in the middle of this, that I’m not going to have any comments from me spread out in the press. Tell her that I will not talk about it, that I will not do an interview about it.’”

I asked, “Mary, where is Dr. Pittman right now?”

She responded, “I’m telling you the truth when I say, ‘I don’t know.’ He was so upset about all this when he left the office a while ago that he just left! But, Anita, even if I knew, I would not tell you. He has a right not to talk to you about this if he doesn’t want to.”

This was awful. I didn’t relish the idea of covering controversies such as this. I didn’t like to push people. I was worried about UAB in light of this battle, and I wished the controversy would miraculously go away. But it didn’t seem to be doing that.

 M94 03P 0012 Pittman KoopJim Pittman with Surgeon General C. Everett Koop“Mary, you are correct when you say that Dr. Pittman has a right not to talk to me about this if he doesn’t want to,” I said. “However, Dr. Pittman is a wise man. And, if he does not talk to me for this story, I can tell you that in my opinion he is not making a wise decision. The reason I say that is this: Regardless of whether or not he tells me about this from his point of view, there will be a story written. And others already have been very vocal in speaking to me from their points of view. If Dr. Pittman does not talk, if he continues to decline to do an interview, then he is in effect allowing others to speak for him.

“Under the circumstances, this interview is an opportunity for him. I have been the one who has conducted the interviews with these other individuals; I know what they have said; I can tell you that Dr. Pittman will strongly disagree with some of their views. I also can tell you that there is no one else to interview from the UAB authority-figure perspective who has the depth of insight that he does about this situation. Please tell him what I have just said. I won’t be trying to contact him further about this. But if he wants to contact me he knows how to find me … as soon as possible, and by late afternoon tomorrow at the latest. That’s why I have to turn loose of the story.”

At some point, Mary had begun taking notes. When I finished, she said, “Okay, I’ll tell him what you said.” I left, heading out to complete other interviews for this story.

Hours went by. Thursday came to an end; Friday morning passed. No phone call from Dr. Jim Pittman. Early Friday afternoon I began writing the story. I wasn’t happy with it. But I wrote it.

Then a little after 4 o’clock on Friday afternoon, the phone rang on my desk.

“Anita Smith,” I answered.

There was a pause, a silence on the other end. I wasn’t sure there was anyone on the line. Then, a male voice – whispery, gravelly, no voice that I at first recognized. “Anita, are you there?” that rapid-fire way of speaking. Dr. Jim Pittman.

“I’m here.”

“This is Jim Pittman.” Still whispery. Still gravelly. But definitely hm. “I’m in a closet.”

“You’re in a closet?”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m in a closet off of one of University Hospital’s hallways. I don’t want anyone to see or hear me talking to you. So I came in here. This closet is filled with cleaning supplies and equipment. I’m sitting on some kind of rickety ladder. (a chuckle) Hope I don’t fall off.” (I suppressed a laugh.)

“Dr. Pittman, there are some private places we could find to talk in person, where you wouldn’t have to perch on a ladder in a hospital closet. I know an out-of-the-way café convenient to both you and me. The owner would let us use his office in the back. I could meet you there … ”

“No, I’m okay on this ladder … So … you think I need to talk about this durned mess over here, right?”

Before I could answer he continued. “Some fine people. Outstanding people. All caught up in this mess, and tearing one another down ... Damaging UAB. Damaging each other. So destructive ... I just don’t want to say anything that will make it worse ... ”

I felt for him as I responded. “Well, Dr. Pittman, why don’t you try explaining all this to me from your view, and let’s see if we can make it better? Or, at the very least, clearer. You are the dean. This story needs to hear your voice.”

So the eloquent, insightful Dr. Pittman began talking. He didn’t get off the subject this time, not once. There was such clarity, such candor. And written all over his voice and his words, such heartbreak.

I listened. I took notes. I typed sometimes. Occasionally I interrupted with a question. We had been on the phone for a little more than a half-hour when I heard a knock on a door – the door to this hospital closet, which Dr. Pittman had locked from the inside.

“Housekeeping. Need some cleaning supplies,” a female voice called out. “Is this door jammed?”

Dr. Pittman accommodated and opened the door. I again heard the female voice, this time taking on a tone of strong surprise: “Why, DOCTOR!” This lady, a member of the hospital housekeeping staff, obviously recognized him immediately. But then, many on campus readily recognized the high-profile dean. “What are you doing in there???”

“Oh, sorry,” Dr. Pittman said. “Just needed a quiet place for a little chat.”

She didn’t question further. She just wanted her cleaning supplies. Typical of gentleman Dr. Jim Pittman, he told me, “Be back in a minute,” put down the phone, and helped her round up the cleaning supplies she needed from the closet.

When she had in hand what she needed and was ready to depart, she simply asked, “You doing all right in here, Doctor?”

“Yeah, yeah, this is a good place. You folks have got this closet in good shape.”

In the end, Dr. Pittman not only gave me the background I needed; he also agreed to be quoted by name. Without question, the context he supplied made a tremendous difference. I tore up the original article I had written and wrote a substitute.

As for the Big Fight, it ended pretty well under the circumstances. Most resignations were withdrawn. Feelings were soothed, although, as is the case with most disputes such as this, there would be some lasting wounds. Dr. Pittman said he would forever be glad that he spoke out. He said it helped.

After all the dust settled, the Interview from the Closet was added to Jim Pittman’s repertoire of stories he loved to tell. In years down the road, from time to time there would be some social or academic event at UAB where he would gather a small audience and call me over and say, “Now, Anita, tell them about that day when I did that interview with you from the closet.” I would typically laugh and respond, “Hey, that was your choice of a setting for that interview, not mine. So why don’t you start the story and I’ll plug in.” And there we would go.

About Dr. Pittman

 A93 04 0599 Pittman

Born: April 12, 1927, Orlando, Fla.

B.S., Davidson College: 1948

M.D., Harvard Medical School: 1952

Internship, Massachusetts General Hospital: 1952-54

Clinical Associate, National Institutes of Health: 1954-56

Married Constance Shen, MD: February 19, 1955

Internal Medicine Resident, UAB, 1956; Chief Resident, 1957-58

Joined UAB faculty: 1959

Director, UAB Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism: 1962-71

Dean of Medicine: 1973-92

Died January 12, 2014, Birmingham, Ala.