Dr. O. W. “Woody” Pittman

Published 9:32 am Tuesday, July 31, 2012

February 15, 1914 – July 28, 2012

AHOSKIE – Dr. Otis Woodrow Pittman, or Woody as he was known to all, was born in Kinston, NC, on February 15, 1914, to Edward Kirby Smith Pittman and Bessie Elizabeth Tyndall Pittman. He had one sister Frances Pittman Woodard, who died several years ago.

His avocations and delights developed throughout his formative years, including music, scouts, dancing, sports, beaches, Wake Forest, Shriners, Rotary, the Methodist Church, and Rachel (whom he first met when he came to Ahoskie from Wake Forest College one weekend with her brother George. Rachel arrived home for lunch on roller skates with pigtails flying!).

When he was born, Woody surely had a tenor sax in one hand and a drumstick in the other and felt the beat of swing and jazz from the beginning. Despite much banging on pots and pans, and eventually the gift of his granddaddy’s tin drum, he had no formal music lessons but had the honor and nerve to sing a solo (“I wonder what I’ll be when I grow up?”) at age five for the senior graduation at Grainger High School in Kinston. He listened constantly to his father’s old recordings of John Phillip Sousa’s band and eventually got to hear the band perform live inKinston, establishing a correspondence with the bass drummer. Before playing sax, he played drums and joined Mehegan’s Boys’ Band inKinston. A special highlight for this band was an invitation in 1929 to journey by bus and boat to the dedication of the Wright Memorial at Kill Devil Hills. Woody even shook Orville Wright’s hand. Later some of those same close friends in Mehegan’s Boys’ Band would play music with Woody during college and thereafter.

Woody’s enthusiasm for scouting began as a boy when he met in Kinston a man who was close to Lord Baden-Powell. This man began what would be the very first Wolf-Cub troop in America. Woody was a proud charter member and felt fortunate to have had this experience.

Woody’s love of music continued throughout his life and truly defined his being. He was forever humming a tune or doing a finger drum beat, and he was never ever without a tune swirling in his head. Once he could not remember the name of a tune which needed identification to win a quiz on WRCS radio in Ahoskie. Undeterred, Woody called old music buddy Benny Goodman, who had originally recorded the tune, and whistled it into the phone. Benny harmonized on the whistling and duly supplied the name. Something Woody once forgot to tell his parents was that he and three others were stowing away on a steamer to go to Europe to enjoy a brief career as buskers on street corners. Only after deportation sent them packing did Woody decide to take a post-high school gap year in New York City before entering Wake Forest where he became drum major of the marching band and performed on tenor sax and vocals in the school orchestra. This same swing band played the Carolina beaches each summer.

During World War II, Woody had his own bands in Norfolk,VA, and Washington, DC, where they played the big hotels and on the radio. He occasionally played drums in the Norfolk Symphony. One night at their regular gig at the Statler Hotel in Washington the band was surprised to have then Senator Harry Truman ask to sit in on piano. When not on the bandstand, Woody captained a bowling team, Pittman’s Penguins. He became a civilian procurement officer with the Canadian Army, through which he was in London during the blitz. After Pearl Harbor he enlisted in the US Army. He played music throughout the war, and afterwards, while obtaining his optometry degree at The Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, he played with various bands up and down the Mississippi—bands including the Dorsey brothers, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, and others.

After establishing his optometric practice in Ahoskie in 1946, Woody renewed his acquaintance with Rachel, romance blossomed, and marriage ensued. While optometry was his vocation, music was his primary avocation. Even when he traveled years later with Rachel and their daughters back to London, while the girls were touring, he was around the corner at St. James Palace listening to the rehearsal of the Queens’s Horse Guard’s marching band. Woody had his own band which played in the Anchor Room of the Carolinian Hotel at Nags Head for twenty years, and after that he had other bands and countless other gigs, including many years with the Southernaires at Atlantic Beach and a Dixieland jazz group called the Sand Fleas. Even very recently, when circumstances had greatly limited his activities, he sang along with Lawrence Welk every Saturday night.

Throughout his forty years of practicing optometry, from 1946-1986, he remained civic-minded and Methodist-minded, serving on various local, regional, and state boards. Since 1946, Woody belonged to the Ahoskie Rotary Club and was also a long-standing member of the Masons and Scottish Rite Shriners, playing bass drum and marching in numerous parades. He founded a Roanoke Chowan Sports Club back in the 1950’s and had speakers such as Charlie Justice and Bones McKinney. He performed in musical productions that were once part of the Ahoskie cultural scene, one of his favorite roles being Pish-tush in The Mikado, an event that brought Andy Griffith to town.

Woody chaired various boards, including the March of Dimes, Red Cross, Hertford/Gates Board of Health, Ahoskie Planning Board, NC Optometric Society, PTA, and the Official Board of Ahoskie United Methodist Church. He was a charter member of Beechwood Country Club and Roanoke Chowan Hospital. He was the oldest continuous player in the men’s softball league in Ahoskie, and he played tennis until he hurt his hip in a fall on the courts when he was 85, whipping many a lad half his age. To the end, he remained passionate about all his avocations, interests, and delights, and he died peacefully at his home, Wynnewood, listening to big band music.

Woody’s family includes two daughters, Amy Braswell and Betsy Overton, and two sons-in-law, Ken Braswell and Larry Overton. He will forever be loved as “Goggi” by his grandchildren Wynne Overton, Anderson Braswell and wife Joanna, Shields Overton and wife Maria, Chason Braswell and wife Christine, and great-granddaughter Claire Margaret Braswell. Woody was married for 61 years to Rachel Cleo Newbern, who predeceased him January 4, 2009, and who frequently was heard to say, “Woody—WOODY.” Once Grandma Mary famously replied to Rachel, “And to think, you got him!”

A memorial service celebrating Woody’s life will be August 6, 2012, at 11 a.m. at Ahoskie United Methodist Church. Prior to the service, at 10 a.m., the family will receive family and friends in the church library. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to Ahoskie United Methodist Church, Vidant Home Health and Hospice, the Millennium Fire Department or Shriners Hospitals for Children.

Garrett-Jones Funeral Home of Ahoskie is serving the Pittman family.  Friends may send online condolences to www.garrettjonesfh.com.