Harry Pitt, former Montgomery County school superintendent, dies

December 12, 2011

Harry Pitt, who was regarded as a careful steward of Montgomery County Public Schools during his term as superintendent from 1987 to 1991, a period that ended with painful cuts to the education budget during a recession, died Dec. 3 at his home in Rockville. He was 81.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland medical examiner’s office said that the cause of death was inhalation of carbon monoxide and that the death was ruled an accident. Dr. Pitt did not turn off the key-less ignition of his car, which was parked in his garage, before going to bed, his family said.

After teaching in Arlington County, Dr. Pitt joined Montgomery County Public Schools in 1962 as an assistant principal and ascended the administrative ranks. He was deputy superintendent for seven years before being named to the top job overseeing one of the country’s premier school districts. It also was one of the nation’s largest, with about 100,000 students.

By his own admission, Dr. Pitt was not an innovator or reformer. He was skeptical about trends that suddenly bloomed in his field, once telling The Washington Post, “I don’t pick up every idea that comes along just because someone wrote a book about it.” He worked 70-hour weeks, and his manner with subordinates was direct. He relieved job stress by lifting weights and jogging.

His long tenure in the school system made him a respected insider in a county known for high-achieving schools that send many students on to elite colleges. He had raised three children who went to county schools, and his wife was a media specialist in Montgomery school libraries.


Dr. Harry Pitt during a school board meeting in Rockville, Maryland on Dec. 8, 1981. Pitt, who was regarded as a careful, even cautious steward of Montgomery County Public Schools during his term as superintendent from 1987 to 1991, a period that ended amid grueling budget battles in a troubled economy, died Dec. 3 at his home in Rockville. He was 81. (James A. Parcell/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Dr. Pitt came to the school chief’s job at a delicate time. Several of his predecessors had frayed relations with the school board and with influential advocacy groups in the county.

“He took a ship that was not running smoothly and ran it very smoothly,” said Robert E. Shoenberg, former president of the Montgomery County Board of Education. “He was a very good judge of administrative talent. He supported innovation, and if he saw a good idea, he’d make it happen.”

As superintendent, Dr. Pitt helped mend ties with the Board of Education, created programs to help new teachers adjust to the system and substantially expanded the county’s all-day kindergarten programs.

One of his top priorities was getting the County Council to increase school budgets to meet the needs of the expanding class sizes caused in part by an influx of minority and foreign-speaking students.

“I think that some people on the County Council have got to realize that our population is growing more diverse and our schools are being asked to work with gifted children, children from deprived backgrounds and all the rest of the children,” Dr. Pitt said at the time. “That costs money, and the council has to realize that what we do now costs more than it did.”

If the first three years of his term were largely about expanding services, the final year was focused on managing program cutbacks amid a grim economy. The Board of Education voted to squeeze $20 million from Dr. Pitt’s request for a $782 million operating budget. This had a dire impact on such programs as interscholastic sports and drivers education and initiatives such as reducing class sizes.

The late Blair Ewing, then president of the Board of Education, praised Dr. Pitt at a board meeting for his “responsible” approach to an unpleasant situation.

Harry Pitt was born March 28, 1930, in Spring Valley, N.Y. Abandoned by his father, he was raised by a single mother who at times imparted harsh lessons about standing his ground against bullies. After a child stole his hat, he was told by his mother not to come home until he got it back.

He toughened up fast and excelled in wrestling and football. His physical and academic promise was noticed by a teacher, who helped set him on a path to college.

He graduated from George Washington University in 1951. After Army service in the Korean War, he received a master’s degree in education from GWU in 1955 and a doctorate in school administration from the same school in 1965.

His wife of 42 years, Babette Vogel “Babs” Pitt, died in 2002. Survivors include three children, Jeff Pitt of Centreville, Va., Joel Pitt of Rockville and Robbie Pitt of the District; and six grandchildren.

After retiring from the Montgomery schools, Dr. Pitt started and taught in a master’s program in education administration at Hood College in Frederick.

One of his favorite pastimes was lifting weights. He ordered his first weight set through the Sears catalogue when he was 13 and participated in weight-lifting meets throughout his life, most recently at age 80.

In addition to lifting weights, Dr. Pitt found other ways to relieve the pressures of the superintendency.

“One day, he received an abusive letter that made him very angry,” Shoenberg recalled. “He gave it to his executive assistant to handle. The first draft had the usual bureaucratic language — ‘Thank you, we’ll look into it,’ et cetera. Harry wanted something strong. By the fourth or fifth draft, it was a very strong letter.

“He takes a look at it and says, ‘Good, now I feel better.’ He crumples it up and says, ‘Now send the first letter.’ ”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”