Dr. John Wittig is one of Birmingham’s finest.
By Trevor C. Hale
Photo by Jared Bash
Stumbling into UAB’s public relations program in the late 1980s, I’ll never forget my first class with department head Dr. John Wittig and his opening salvo—I was expecting “eager young minds” but instead got “Jesus Christ, you dopey bastards.”
In class he was a consummate smart ass (“I realize English is a second language for many of you from Alabama”), he challenged us every day with pop quizzes designed to be unintuitive, and, among his signature feedback, was the “PLT” red mark, aka “pissy little ‘the’” error for redundant “the”s. One point deduction for every PLT. It wasn’t uncommon for students to have scores of minus 40. Below zero. Students rewrote and improved. Or they bailed. Every year, about half the students who started the PR program dropped out. Collectively, those of us who endured the program and adore our mentor are known affectionately as “survivors.” We love the 50 percent attrition rate. UAB’s higher-ups: probably not so much.
A native of the Bronx, as an undergrad, Wittig was the national debating champion in the U.S. The country’s top student debater. He has at his fingertips inane facts and figures deployable in any given situation (God bless his wife, Pat, in whom he met his match). He is a bullshitter’s bullshitter, and thus can detect and has no patience for mediocre BS. Like a good debater, he is always three or four verbal chess moves ahead. He conditioned us to be decent sparring partners.
Those working on a UAB PR degree not only had to survive the battery of Wittig classes, but were expected to participate in the student-run PR chapter and agency, of which UAB is part of national and state memberships (Public Relations Student Society of America and Public Relations Council of Alabama).
Our student chapter competed annually in Alabama for chapter of the year against UAT (Tuscaloosa), Auburn, Samford, UAH, USA, Birmingham-Southern, and Montevallo. When I was president of the UAB chapter, the pressure was on to deliver our 10th consecutive victory as chapter of the year against the state’s major players (sorry, Troy). Our advantages were, of course, that Wittig drove us to do more than we ever thought possible; but more so, that Birmingham offered so many activities in which the agency could participate. There was and is so much happening in Birmingham that it was easy to get involved in very cool events and projects, which earned credit toward student chapter success.
Last year, when Wittig retired, the UAB PR students had won chapter of the year 33 of the last 34 years. Who’s the dopey bastard that didn’t deliver?
Because of the reputation of UAB’s PR program and Wittig in particular, businesses who know anything about PR favor UAB grads. When I say PR, I’m not talking about hostessing, being a trade show booth babe, or many of the other gigs in which people casually say, “I’m in PR.” I’m talking about the art and science of effective stakeholder engagement and the ability to craft and manage a compelling corporate narrative in the best and worst of times.
As you can imagine, UAB PR grads have been gob-smacked with how the university has handled the athletics PR crisis. It’s been a case study in how to alienate just about every stakeholder, including students, alumni, employees, community leaders, government officials, and media. Protests, #FreeUAB, #FireRayWatts. All symptoms of a worn-out, century-old T-town-centric legacy of UAB being UAT’s extension school.
What advice would Nick Saban give to UAB about good governance? Take charge of your future. Leave the machinations of the real or imaginary “machine” to those in T-town. I love the Tide, but the fact that the state’s largest employer and one its biggest economic contributors is not in charge of its own destiny is not just wrong—it’s God-awful governance.
I digress. UAB has done so much for me and I owe it so much. Most of all, I owe Dr. Wittig. He welcomed a young, foolish single parent into his PR boot camp and inspired me to do more than I ever thought possible. As he did for so many others.
He’s one of Birmingham’s greatest people and should be celebrated.