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Jenice Armstrong: Earning his 'Minutes': Byron Pitts overcame stuttering, illiteracy to become a high-profile CBS journalist

STEVE KROFT: I'm Steve Kroft. LESLEY STAHL: I'm Lesley Stahl. SCOTT PELLEY: I'm Scott Pelley. MORLEY SAFER: I'm Morley Safer.

STEVE KROFT: I'm Steve Kroft.

LESLEY STAHL: I'm Lesley Stahl.

SCOTT PELLEY: I'm Scott Pelley.

MORLEY SAFER: I'm Morley Safer.

BYRON PITTS: I'm Byron Pitts.

These stories and Andy Rooney, tonight on "60 Minutes."

Then you hear the familiar "tick, tick, tick" as you wait for what's often a fascinating mix of news and features.

In the fiercely competitive TV news business, which thrives on newscasters' ability to process information, good looks and perfect enunciation, it's surprising to learn that a member of this elite bunch was once functionally illiterate and spoke with a stutter.

As a child, a doctor even suggested to Byron Pitts' parents that he was retarded and could benefit from being placed in a special-needs program. To his great shame, Pitts didn't learn to read until he was 12. Before that, he'd been getting by faking it and memorizing text. Even after learning to read, Pitts continued to struggle academically and stuttered uncontrollably.

Looking back at those days, Pitts must be going, "How ya like me now?"

These days, the Baltimore native is chief national correspondent for CBS News, as well as a contributor to "60 Minutes." Snagging such a coveted gig was the culmination of a dream for a skinny kid who wore Coke-bottle-thick eyeglasses and was nicknamed Pickles because of his immense forehead.

His classmates used to laugh at his aspirations of becoming a journalist. Nobody's laughing now - least of all his mother, who, according to his new memoir, "Step Out on Nothing: How Faith and Family Helped Me Conquer Life's Challenges" (St. Martin's Press, 2009), once mailed him a scathing letter after he informed her of his plans to drop out of Ohio Wesleyan University. It began, "Have you lost your f------ mind?" Although she told me she wishes her son would have let her preview the book before it was published, Clarice Pitts hopes people, particularly parents, will learn from her son's early struggles.

"Don't let people determine what your child can do or will or should do. If your child is having a problem, there's a lot of help out there. You have just got to search for it and get the help," she told me during a phone interview. "The doctor told me, when he did that test, 'Bring him back when he's 15.' I said, 'He'll be a school dropout by that time.'

"The main thing I would want people to take from that book is for parents to be involved in their child's life whether it's Little League, football or church . . . know who their friends are and know where they are."

Illiteracy is a staggering problem, particularly in a knowledge-based economy like ours. Where are you going to find a job if you can't read well enough to fill out an application? And if you're lucky enough to get one, how do you keep it if you're constantly having to get someone to explain things because you can't follow directions? An estimated 22 percent of Philadelphians ages 16 and older lack basic literacy skills, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. (Nationally, the figure is substantially lower at 14.5 percent.) It's pitiful, when you consider the educational resources available in Philadelphia alone.

"People don't talk about it because there's shame that comes with it," pointed out Charles Rand, director of external affairs for the Center for Literacy, at 6th and South streets.

So, it's helpful when a celebrity such as Fantasia, the "American Idol" winner, or Pitts comes forward and admits he had to overcome illiteracy.

As a preteen, Pitts' situation began to turn around after he saw a reading machine advertised on television that was designed to help adults improve their reading. His mother ordered it and the two of them worked together nightly as Pitts began once again going through the alphabet and sounding out basic words. It was a frustrating process, one that would leave him in tears. But as a family, they stuck with it. And after being near the bottom of school, he eventually reversed his standing at the all-male, Catholic school he attended.

"I got my first A in high school in my junior year," he said.

"I think because reading came relatively late to me in life, I didn't take it for granted," Pitts told me last week. "I recognized the value of education, how it could change my life."

His mother's insistence that he achieve and his own religious beliefs helped Pitts create a vision for himself and how things would eventually go for him - less like the proverbial hare and more like the tortoise who eventually wins the race. Slow and plodding as opposed to the overnight success stories we hear about.

His first job out of college was at a weekly newspaper that didn't even supply him with a notebook. He took a Polaroid on assignments and pens from a funeral parlor. He then got a job as a TV reporter in Greenville, N.C., earning just $8,600 a year before moving on to another meagerly paid job in Norfolk, Va., where he got $12,000. Those early experiences laid the groundwork for stints in Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Atlanta, Washington and Boston before landing at the network.

"I want people to be encouraged. I say I wrote the book for the underdogs in the world . . . to tell them that you can do whatever you want to in this life," Pitts said. "Strength comes from struggle."

The Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists is sponsoring a book-signing for Byron Pitts' "Step Out on Nothing: How Faith and Family Helped Me Conquer Life's Challenges" (St. Martin's Press, 2009) from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday at the Daily News/Inquirer public room, 400 N. Broad St. The event is free and open to the public. To RSVP, e-mail dawn@kdcomm.