John Wittig passed away Saturday, April 23, 2022. Born in New York City in 1939, John graduated from Bronx Science High School at 16 and embarked on a journey through academia that would end with his retirement from UAB 60 years later. Along the way John was shaped by his City College of NY ROTC commanding officer Colin Powel; next found intercollegiate debate when he left CCNY and headed south to Gardner-Webb; and sharpened his debating skills all the way to a National Championship win just before graduating from Carson-Newman. During his brief dip in the corporate waters back in NYC, Wittig realized he was not where he was supposed to be. He packed up the family and headed back south to the University of Florida. There Wittig obtained his master's degree while also serving as a Gators' debate coach. After Gainesville, John took his young family back to New York. This time it was upstate to Geneseo where Wittig again coached debate at the local university. Next stop was back to the south and West Georgia College where he helped that small school make an impact on the college debate circuit. After 5 years in Carrolton, GA, Wittig had spent more time there than anywhere else since leaving NYC, he decided to pursue his PhD at Southern Illinois University. After receiving his doctorate, now "Dr" Wittig returned to the south, this time to Alabama and UAB. It was 1981, UAB Basketball was still in its infancy, but Wittig became a fan, a BIG fan. Wittig also began making an indelible mark on the UAB Department of Communication Studies in the field of Public Relations. Wittig developed much of the public relations curriculum on his way to directing the school's public relations program. Wittig was the founder and associate director of UAB's Center for Communication Research. He established and served as faculty advisor to two student chapters of public relations professional organizations. Wittig also administered the internship programs for majors in broadcasting, journalism, public relations, and communication management. The awards and accolades followed. The UAB Public Relations Student Society of America, under Dr. Wittig's guidance, won numerous awards including state chapter of the year 33 out of 34 years (including one stretch of 25 straight). In 1987 Wittig was honored with the Birmingham Area Chapter of the American Red Cross Communications Award. In 1989 Wittig was named Public Relations Practitioner of the Year by the Public Relations Council of Alabama. In 1990 the UAB Public Relations Council of Alabama student chapter was renamed the John W. Wittig Chapter. In 2006, the UAB Board of Trustees endowed the Dr. John Wittig Public Relations Alumni Endowed Presidential Scholarship. And in 2013 Wittig was inducted into Southern Public Relations Hall of Fame.
But these are just facts; the wheres the whats and the whens. But who was John Wittig?
He was a Yankees fan. Born in the Bronx; his father's father delivered beer in a wagon to Yankee stadium. His sister went out with Roger Maris once. How could he be anything other than a Yankee fan.
In the world of debate everyone knew John Wittig. National Champion as a competitor he brought the same lighting-fast-analytical mind, razor wit, and gift for spotting weakness to his role as coach. He recruited debaters; he repelled debaters; he made debaters cry. He ran summer debate workshops; wrote debate handbooks; established and ran debate tournaments. As a debate judge, he would write a scathing ballot one round followed by one full of praise and inspiration the next: somehow both equally full of argumentative insights, laughs and insults.
As a family man John, Dad, Grandad could be tough, lovable, maddening, insulting, funny and generous. He could hold on to the slightest grievance and easily forgive the gravest error. He mumbled and he shouted. He could demand attention and he could sit quietly with a book. He could ask the same question for the umpteenth time and then offer constructive, meaningful insight into life's most confounding predicaments. He could explode over a neglected responsibility and never turn down a request for assistance. He was the smartest man you ever met, and he could be genuinely bewildered when something he said caused injury.
As a teacher and shaper of student minds, well those "dopey bastards" as he oftentimes called them to their faces, can speak for themselves.
I am who I am today because of the impact John Wittig had on my life. His methods made me a sharp practitioner and his curriculum turned me into a devoted civic advocate. Being a "Wittig survivor" is a badge of honor I will continue to wear proudly throughout my career.
Wittig was open about the fact that many who began his program wouldn't finish. It wasn't until I graduated that I understood why he was so demanding. He knew the stakes well before we did. Our focus was on finishing school and finding any job. But he knew his graduates would go on to communications leadership roles in huge corporations, utilities, and municipalities. He knew he had direct impact on the standards and skills of people who would guide how critical issues were handled. I'm so glad he knew how important his job was. And I'm so proud to be a Wittig Survivor.
As a student, I didn't have much time for basketball games. I was a Communications Studies/Public Relations major - a program directed by one of the scariest, yet most revered faculty at UAB. We were required to turn in a blank cassette tape (Google it if you're not familiar) with our assignments which was quite helpful, but also terrifying. Dr. Wittig would record feedback, pausing to blow smoke from his cigarette, while grading your project. He would then allow you to edit/re-write for another review. Sometimes he would simply record the sound of your paper being torn to shreds. I once earned a -60 on a paper. After many revisions, I increased my grade to a 34 and was ecstatic. On one occasion he called each student in my work group at 10 PM and informed us we should be prepared to give a "press conference" in his office the following morning at 8 AM. Because that was real life. Looking back, I was always reasonably sure I had turned in a decent paper upon the first submission. After six or seven (or 12) re-writes, I had a good paper. In some cases, an excellent paper. What I realized years later was that the multiple revisions taught us we could always do better even when we thought we had done our best. The last-minute, stomach-churning assignments taught us how to think on our feet. To always be prepared for the unexpected. He wasn't just preparing us for our careers. He was preparing us for life. Dr. Wittig wasn't terrorizing us to be unkind. He was pushing us to always be better. To be our best selves. He fiercely loves his students and he loves UAB. He is ever faithful. Ever loyal.
John W Wittig was truly a legend, and his impact runs deep across this country through the many PR practitioners he's developed and mentored along the way. He was proud of his brand (the "Wittig Survivors"), and he truly poured his love of language, the art of debate and his passion for PR into every student he taught.
However, Dr. Wittig really helped me believe in myself. Before I applied for an internship, I built the courage to ask him for a recommendation letter, to which he replied, "Carnel, write it yourself and bring it back to me. If I like it, I'll sign it." So, I did just that. But instead of signing it, he ripped it up in front of me and told me to write it again. He told me those words didn't represent me, and that I was better than what I had written.
It was there that I found his soft spot…
Dr. Wittig was hard to the core, but he was the biggest fan of his students. There will never be another professor like him. He's truly left his mark and will never be forgotten.
John was preceded in death by his parents Bill and Francis; his sisters Beverly and Fran; and his son Parker. John is survived by his wife Pat; brother Tommy; son Bill (Gina); stepdaughter Rain Ruggerio (Tim); his grandchildren Jake, John & Emily Wittig, and Atticus & Evrett Ruggerio; and his dog Jeeter. John was 82