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Brush With Death Spurs State Senate Run for Dealer

Mon September 10, 2007 - Southeast Edition
Kerry Kirby

It was a freezing cold February day when Lee “Trip” Pittman had a brush with death that would set him on a new course.

The Alabama heavy equipment dealer, now in a runoff for the Republican nomination to fill the state Senate seat for District 32, said if not for the weather, he and his pilot friend, Roger James, would have suffered widespread burns from the flames that devoured their single-engine plane moments after it crashed into a tree in the Florida Panhandle.

Pittman said he had caught a ride from James to Tallahassee, Fla., to conduct some business, and the two were flying back to Fairhope (Ala.) Municipal Airport when a mechanical problem forced the 1970 Bellanca Super Viking down in rural Fountain, Fla.

James suffered first- and second-degree burns on his hands, face and ears, while Pittman suffered second- and third-degree burns to his arms and face.

Their heavy clothes didn’t catch fire, thus protecting them from widespread burns, said Pittman, noting he suffered third-degree burns on both of his forearms because his sleeves were rolled up.

It was a very close call, he said. Because they happened to be wearing those clothes, they were not knocked out by the crash and were able to quickly escape the plane’s burning cockpit despite the door jamming. They survived the harrowing ordeal.

“I thought it was all over with,” said Pittman, who owns Pittman Tractor Company in Daphne, Ala., a Hyundai dealership. “That was just a great feeling [to get out].”

The Birmingham, Ala.-born Pittman — a third-generation heavy equipment dealer — said surviving the crash was “an affirmation of life” that got him to take the plunge from business and community leader to political candidate.

During his treatment in the burn unit of the University of South Alabama Medical Center in Mobile, Pittman began wondering if there was a plan for him. He had thought about running for political office for a long time, he said, but the timing was never right.

A few months after the Feb. 17 crash, with encouragement from a friend, the Montrose resident decided to throw his hat in the race for a state senate seat abruptly vacated by the appointment of state Sen. Bradley Byrne to chancellor of Alabama’s two-year college system.

Pittman finished second out of five candidates in the August primary election and moved on to face lawyer/real estate broker Randy McKinney in a runoff for the Republican nomination on Sept. 11. The election had not occurred as of press time.

Pittman, who moved to Baldwin County at age 11, said he has been humbled by “all the friends, all the support we have, all the people who have been out there working hard for us.”

He said he thinks he can make a difference as a legislator, bringing “sort of a citizen’s perspective” to the job.

Pittman describes himself as a conservative who believes in family values, limited government, fiscal responsibility and “open and honest government.”

Government needs to take a long-term perspective, and budget and plan for the long-term consequences of programs they put in place because people are planning for them to be lived up to, he said.

Admiration for his prominent politician uncle and politically active father oriented Pittman toward public service early in life.

Pittman said his uncle, James Browning Allen, was committed to public service and gave out copies of the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Allen became an Alabama state senator in his mid-20s, then served two stints as the state’s lieutenant governor, once under Gov. George Wallace, before serving as a Democratic U.S. senator from Alabama until his death in 1978.

“I had a lot of respect for him growing up,” said Pittman, who said his own father, a heavy equipment dealer in Baldwin County, was working on a political campaign when he died in a plane crash the following year.

Pittman said he was a freshman at the University of Alabama when his father died and his business, Pittman Equipment Co., was liquidated.

Pittman went on to receive a bachelor of science degree in commerce and business administration from the university in 1982 and a reserve commission as 2nd Lieutenant from the Army ROTC program in 1983. He later served in the Alabama National Guard as 1st Platoon Leader in Troop E, 31st Armor Brigade, based in Sylacauga, Ala., and was honorably discharged in 1996.

After school, Pittman returned to south Alabama, where he worked in Mobile as a salesman for Tractor and Equipment Co. In 1988, he got into brokering, buying and selling reconditioned equipment. He built his current location in 2000, becoming a Hyundai dealer in addition to continuing to grow the reconditioning side of the business.

Pittman said he named his business Pittman Tractor Company after his grandfather’s Birmingham firm, J.D. Pittman Tractor.

Pittman said his grandfather was a mechanic in Mississippi when he met one of the founders of Caterpillar, and opened the original Cat dealership in north Alabama in the 1920s. The business was sold to Thompson Tractor Co. in the 1950s, Pittman said.

Having worked in his dad’s business since age 6, Pittman’s father chose a career in heavy equipment, first working as dealer rep, then becoming a partner in a firm and, finally, starting Pittman Equipment Co., which was a Komatsu dealership.

While he didn’t inherit a business either, Trip Pittman came by his interest in heavy equipment similarly to his father. He recalls working at his father’s businesses starting at age 11 for $1 per hour; his tasks included cleaning up the shop, changing oil as a mechanic’s helper and mowing grass.

Pittman became active in the community in the early 1990s, serving as a volunteer on the Baldwin County Planning and Zoning Commission, then participated in Baldwin County United’s program to cultivate leaders in 1995. He went on to serve on Baldwin County United’s board of directors.

In 1994, he worked on Alabama Gov. Fob James’ successful campaign. He was appointed to the Alabama Commission on Higher Education. He also has served on the Bayside Academy board of trustees, Baldwin County Compass Bank board of directors and the Eastern Shore Sertoma Club.

Following his recovery from the crash, the time finally felt right to seek elected office, said Pittman.

Pittman doesn’t foresee a problem maintaining balance between attending to his senate responsibilities and running a successful business. He said he has some key longtime employees whom he can trust with responsibilities when he’s not available.

But given that Alabama has a “citizens’ legislature” that meets just 30 days in regular session over approximately two and a half months — a legislature meeting on Tuesdays and Thursdays and committee meetings on Wednesdays — he can commute to Montgomery during the session and still have plenty of time to attend to business.

As for his family, Pittman said his wife, the former Lynn Kittrell, and three children have been very supportive of his foray into politics.

If he wins the primary, Pittman will face off against Fairhope lawyer and former Prichard Mayor A.J. Cooper in the general election Oct. 16. CEG

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