Fitje L. 'Binnie' Pitts

The longtime Roland Park resident worked for the Red Cross in World War II and was decorated for her service.

November 05, 2008|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

Fitje Lavinia "Binnie" Pitts, who served in the Red Cross in Europe during World War II and was later decorated for her service, died of respiratory failure related to Alzheimer's disease Friday at the Keswick Multi-Care Center. The Roland Park resident was 91.

Born in Providence, R.I., she earned a degree in sociology at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. She then moved to New York City, took courses at the Catherine Gibbs School and worked at the IBM Pavilion during the 1939 World's Fair. She later said that the IBM stock she was awarded that summer paid for every car - seven vehicles - she ever owned. She drove until four years ago.

After World War II began, she joined the American Red Cross and sailed to England aboard the Queen Mary, the passenger liner that had been converted into a troop transport.

During the crossing, she roomed with Kathleen Kennedy, the sister of future president John F. Kennedy and whose father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had been U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James's.

"The two of them had dinner at the captain's table every night and were given access to a small area on one of the upper decks where they could sunbathe every afternoon, to the great entertainment of all topside troops," said a son, H. Canfield "Toby" Pitts II of Baltimore.

She witnessed the "buzz bomb" attacks on London and was later stationed at an air base in England.

After the Allied invasion, she spent the winter of 1944-1945 in a barn in Beaumont-sur-Oise, about 30 miles north of Paris. She ran a servicemen's club and drove a two-ton truck to Paris every two weeks for supplies, food and alcohol.

She later recalled that while in Beaumont, the local prostitutes told her that "the Germans had a woman for every pilot" and inquired "what was going on" at her air base.

"It was a perfect opportunity to practice my French and explain the role of the American Red Cross," she replied in a memoir laced with her characteristically dry humor.

In 2002, she returned to Beaumont at the invitation of the mayor and other officials. Mrs. Pitts was honored at a luncheon given by the local government and attended by more than 175 citizens. The mayor and the daughter of a woman who had worked for Mrs. Pitts presented her with their highest civilian award for "bravery and service." She was made an honorary citizen of Beaumont-sur-Oise.

At the end of the war, she was in Belgium and wrote of driving to the Russian front near today's Czech Republic. She picked up parachute silk, which she donated to a local monastery. The nuns made her a set of pajamas, which she saved. She also claimed 70 gallons of cognac, which she shared with her base.

After the war, she married Tilghman G. Pitts Jr., an insurance executive, and moved to Baltimore. She raised three sons and was a longtime volunteer at Union Memorial Hospital and at Children's Hospital, where she had been women's board president.

"She would come up with the funniest, most unexpected things," said Susan Rittenhouse, a friend. "There was never a boring time around her. She herself was not bored with her life."

Mrs. Pitts was active at the Maryland SPCA and was a founding member of the Smith College Club's annual book sale. She also sold clothes for many years at the old Helen Dugan Boyce Dress Shop on Cold Spring Lane and The Wardrobe on Wyndhurst Avenue.

"She was a compulsive needlepointer and knitter," her son said. "Growing up, I never owned a sweater that she didn't make."

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. David's Episcopal Church, 4700 Roland Ave., where she helped run a nearly new shop.

Survivors include two other sons, Tilghman G. Pitts III and Stephen M. Pitts, both of Princeton, N.J.; and six grandchildren. Her husband of 25 years died in 1974.

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