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Pitts retiring after remarkable 27-year career at Monmouth

Barry McNamara
05/07/2019
MONMOUTH, Ill. – A few minutes into an interview with Peter Pitts about his remarkable 27-year career in admission at Monmouth College, one of the students he recruited to campus stopped by his table at Einstein Bros. Bagels in Hewes Library.

“I’ve just got to say ‘Thank you,’” said graduating senior Denzel Johnson. “I’m glad to be a part of your ‘thousand hearts’ that you brought to Monmouth. I can’t say ‘Thank you’ enough.”

Johnson was referring to a line in the school song and the fact that Pitts has recruited well over 1,000 students to Monmouth over the past quarter-century. Combined with his other 15 years in admission, Pitts has recruited more than 2,000 students to attend college in the Midwest. He will retire from Monmouth following its 162nd commencement on May 12.

Pitts has chronicled some of his 42 years of working with students, parents and other admission reps in a book project he has titled After Breakfast ... I Change Lives.

Johnson, who is from Chicago’s south side, exemplifies one of the major demographics of student that Pitts has recruited – a resident from an underserved population.

“We forget how utterly life-changing it is for a young man or young woman to leave the inner city,” he writes in the manuscript.

Another example is Irving Hernandez ’18, who majored in physics. In his manuscript, Pitts includes an emotional message he received from Hernandez:

“Thank you, Mr. Pitts, for everything you have done in my life. As a college recruiter, you go above and beyond, especially helping out minorities like myself from the city who want an education but are lost or just don’t know how. ... If it wasn’t for you, then I wouldn’t be able to wake up in this dream that I will never let go.”

In addition to helping prospective students discover a kind of college that they might have not considered before encountering him, Pitts also exposed some young people to a region they had never visited. He recalled that one young man “had never seen an actual stalk of corn” until one of the trips from Chicago to Monmouth that Pitts regularly organized for students.

He found his calling

Pitts’ admission career began Jan. 6, 1977, at his undergraduate alma mater, Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. He also holds a master’s degree from the University of Iowa.

“Every morning I wake up and cannot wait to do what I do,” said Pitts. “Being an admission rep is like being a parent to a couple thousand kids. I’m continually amazed by their accomplishments.”

Pitts said he has developed a keen discernment for determining which students might be a good fit for the College.

“It’s almost like I have a sixth sense of who will become a Monmouth student,” he said.

In addition to that “sixth sense,” Pitts has been guided by a few other ground rules.

“The longer you talk, the higher the chance of actually recruiting the student,” he said. “I call it ‘almost hypnosis’ – the ability to get on a student’s wavelength and convince them to at least consider my college. ... It’s almost like I’m a ‘student whisperer.’ It’s a God-given gift to connect with students. It’s not a technique. Something clicks, and there’s just an instant connection.”

While Pitts usually had a plan for helping light that spark, such as attending a college fair or making a scheduled school visit, he sometimes relied on improvisation skills.

Several years ago, while visiting Lane Tech Prep High School, he was not getting any takers at his table. Sitting a few feet behind him was student Thea Bloom, who was quietly eating her lunch. Pitts said he wound up “talking her ear off about Monmouth,” and Bloom eventually attended, becoming an honored student-athlete and one of Pitts’ “favorite recruits of all time.”

Similarly, Pitts was not scheduled to meet with Natalie Harris ’01, but while taking a shortcut through the Oswego High School library, he saw her in her University of Iowa sweatshirt and struck up a conversation. Harris was on track to attend Iowa, but after hearing about Monmouth’s education major from Pitts, she visited campus and wound up in Monmouth instead.

“Natalie’s life was completely changed because of that brief encounter in a school library,” said Pitts.

Words to live by

While singing Monmouth’s praises to prospective students, Pitts said he makes sure not to go overboard.

“Just be yourself, tell the truth, have fun and be flexible,” he said of his message. “I try to under-promise and over-deliver. … The important thing is, is the student happy? Is the student ending up where they really need to be at this point in their life? If they’re happy and they’re where they need to be, then I’ve done my job.”

Pitts said he is especially proud that the percentage of minority students enrolled at Monmouth quadrupled during his 27 years at the College, which he credits to a campus-wide commitment and effort.

Story time

Pitts loves to tell a good story, and there are plenty to choose from in his book. Returning to Chicago from a Monmouth group visit, one of the students spoke up from the back. “Mr. Pitts, you can stop calling me now,” she said. “I am coming to Monmouth for sure. No more calls!”

That student did indeed attend Monmouth, and the first position she held after graduating was college recruiter.

While working early in his career for his alma mater – and at a time when reps visited prospective students in their homes – a heavy snow prevented Pitts from driving the final mile to a house. So he strapped on cross country skis to make it to the house. One would think that student couldn’t possibly say ‘No’ to such a dedicated effort, but somehow that was the case.

The next chapter

Although Pitts is retiring from his day-to-day recruitment of students, he won’t be idle. Citing his “damn German work ethic,” he is going to stay busy as an “ethical, low-cost” independent admissions consultant. He plans to develop an app and launch a website geared to students looking for colleges with an enrollment of 1,000-3,000 students.

“I can’t just do nothing – that’s not in my repertoire,” he said. “I’ll be helping people find a good small college to go to. I’ll still be recruiting kids to Monmouth, trust me.”

Reflecting on his 42-year career with his Monmouth colleagues at a retirement reception on May 2, Pitts said the biggest payoff he received was intangible.

“The paycheck I get every month is nothing compared to the paycheck I get here,” he said, tapping his heart.