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Grand marshal spread his legacy statewide

by Larry S. Chowning

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Former VMRC Commissioner William (Bill) Pruitt, above, is grand marshal of this year’s Oyster Festival.

The Urbanna Oyster Festival Foundation Board has named former Virginia Marine Resources (VMRC) Commissioner William (Bill) Pruitt as the grand marshal of the 55th annual Urbanna Oyster Festival.

Pruitt’s voice is deep and strong. There’s still an echo of that distinctive Eastern Shore of Virginia accent that he picked up as a child growing up on Tangier Island.

Tangier is almost right in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay and noted as a maritime community where commercial fishing is king. Although many a strong, dynamic individual has left the island to meet with success in life, few have come close to reaching the accomplishments of Bill Pruitt.

In 2006, after 25 years as head of VMRC, Pruitt retired. His long service might not seem that big of a deal except for the fact that the job is a political appointment and Democrats and Republicans switched back and forth in the governor’s mansion quite a few times over the course of Pruitt’s tenure as commissioner.

A feat in itself, Pruitt served under seven governors. Starting with Governor Charles “Chuck” Robb in 1982, each governor thereafter appointed Pruitt with very little debate. He’d probably still be in office if he had wanted to stay.

You might say he was good at his job, or you might say he was just being Bill Pruitt. Commercial fisherman Kenneth W. Williams of Hartfield, a former commission member who served on VMRC as the waterman representative, said Pruitt had a knack for making everything seem better, even when it wasn’t. His positive demeanor made you think, well, maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem, said Williams.

“I’ve seen people come before the commission mad as you know what and leave with a smile on their face. And really nothing had changed,” said Williams.

In the 1960s, Pruitt married an Urbanna girl, Diane Pruitt, and moved off Tangier Island to Remlik. He had landed a job working in a newly formed regional planning commission. Shortly thereafter, he became the first county administrator in Richmond County.

While there he became associated with leaders in the politically-connected oyster packing and menhaden industries in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula.

When state officials began to look for a replacement for Dr. James Douglas as head of VMRC, several oyster packers and others lobbied for Pruitt’s name to be included in the list of applicants.
To say the least, the young man from Tangier Island appeared to be a long shot.

“When several people approached me about the job I said I’d talk to them about it, but I thought it was so far out of reach,” said Pruitt. “It was the only state job I’d be interested in because of my heritage. Generations of my family had worked the water.”

Pruitt was interviewed but Robb reappointed Douglas. A couple months later Douglas resigned. Governor Robb then created a 23-member search committee and went nationwide trying to find a new head of the commission. Pruitt was encouraged to resubmit his name and he did.

There were 35 strong applicants from all across the country and the list was narrowed down to five. Pruitt made the interview cut and went before the selection panel.

During his interview, he went through the expected questions like everyone else, but at the end of the session the opportunity came for that Bill Pruitt ‘wit’ to present itself.

The chairman of the panel was the late H.R. “Peck” Humphreys Jr., then a powerful man in Virginia’s menhaden fishery. At the end of Pruitt’s interview Humphreys asked if anyone had any questions for the young man.

“ ‘Well,’ this man said, ‘I’ve got a question,’ ” Pruitt recalls.

“He said, ‘Bill, I’m a beer distributor. That’s how I make my living. Why do you think the governor appointed me to be on this board?’ ”

“I came right back with an answer; I said, sir, anyone who’s ever eaten Chesapeake Bay steamed crabs knows we need you around. When you eat a steamed crab you’ve got to have a pitcher of beer with it.”

“The place broke up with laughter,” said Pruitt.

“Then Mr. Humphreys said, ‘I’ve got a question for him: Bill, how are you going to feel as our commissioner about having to answer to a woman.’ ”

At that time, the state’s Secretary of Natural Resources was Betty Deiner and she would be over Pruitt.

“I said ‘Mr. Chairman, I’ve been answering to them all my life.’ ”

His quick wit helped him land the job. “I had one panel member tell me that when they got around the table to decide, the majority wanted me because of the answers to those two questions.”

Pruitt took over the office in changing and violent times. The early 1980s were transition years for VMRC. For decades, VMRC had been in charge of enforcing Virginia seafood laws and regulations.
By 1983, rules and regulations of some fisheries were becoming less controlled by the state and more under regional and national agencies.

In 1984, Virginia was being pressured hard by the American States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to establish striped bass regulations to protect female fish to help revive the species. Pruitt and others wanted to comply with the plan without going to a total moratorium, which did eventually happen in 1989 for one year.

“That was an emotional time,” said Pruitt. “I had a Potomac River waterman get up at a meeting and bang his fist on the table. He said, ‘I’m a Vietnam vet and my daddy and granddaddy were fishermen and you are getting ready to put me out of business.’ ”

“I responded, well I can relate with you on all levels. I’m a Vietnam vet; my father and grandfather were fishermen too. I don’t want to put you out of business and that’s why I’m trying to sell ASMFC on a partial moratorium.

“The State of Maryland went to a moratorium overnight in 1985,” said Pruitt. “We wanted a gradual cutback. It caused a lot of gray hair because it meant we had to hold public hearings every year.

“From a personal standpoint it would have been easier to do what Maryland did with a total moratorium and have all the arrows shot at me on one night, but I knew what it meant to the families of all these watermen too.

“You go over to Chincoteague, Tangier Island or New Point and explain that this year I’m taking a third of your catch away; next year I’m taking a half; and then you tell them they can’t fish for a while. Boy, that was a time!

“It wasn’t easy for me but I think we all realized when the fish came back that we had done the right thing.”

One of the worst times Pruitt had to face as commissioner came early in his career. The rockfish moratorium paled in comparison to when Maryland watermen won the right through the federal courts to fish crab pots and gillnets and crab dredge in Virginia waters. The court case was Tangier Sound Watermen’s Association vs. Douglas.

“My waterman’s heritage helped me when there was big trouble,” said Pruitt. “The court case was rendered in 1982 but the implementation came the first spring I was in office.”

Right before Pruitt took office, Saxis Island, Virginia, watermen attacked a Maryland seafood truck and turned it over in the road. Virginia and Maryland state police were called upon to establish order. “It was a nasty situation,” said Pruitt.

In the spring of 1983, a similar situation was brewing at Cape Charles. “Tempers were already high. Virginia watermen felt Maryland seafood buyers were showing buying preferences to Maryland watermen at the Cape Charles dock,” said Pruitt.

When news came to Richmond that they might have another Saxis situation on their hands some state officials wanted the state police to handle the matter, but Pruitt took charge. “I told them not to send the state police. This is a situation that can get out of control, but I think I can handle it,” he said.

“I went over to Cape Charles and told my people that when I walk down that dock I don’t want any uniformed police or VMRC officers in uniform anywhere near me,” he said. “I had called ahead and found out who most of the boys were that were causing the trouble. Some of them were my cousins from Tangier.

“If it hadn’t been for my heritage, I would have had a tougher time,” he said. “There was some b.s. in me when I got down to the dock and told the boys you better work with me because the FBI is on the way. They are up the road a ways and they aren’t going to be as nice as I am.

“I got them calmed down a bit and then I was told that Senator Bill Fears was holding a meeting of all watermen at Accomack Courthouse and he wanted me there as soon as possible. I thought real quick and said, ‘You boys need to be up at the courthouse to hear what Senator Fears has to say.’ That got them off the dock and away from the Maryland trucks.

“So up we went to the courthouse. The courthouse was full of watermen with caps and boots on, and we were all in there and Senator Fears said, ‘Bill, I’m certainly glad to see you.’

“Then he said, ‘Now, everyone take a seat. The commissioner is here. He’s come all the way from Newport News. I told you he would come, now let’s listen to what he has to say.’

“Sitting in the front row was a distant cousin of mine who had moved off the island. He was about 6’3”, sitting in the front row and just running his mouth and looking mad and mean. He had his hat on his head.”

“I asked, ‘Senator, am I in charge?’

“When Senator Fears said yes, I yelled as loud as I could, ‘Bonnie, take your hat off! You are in the courtroom of the United States of America! You got Senator Fears here who we all know and love! Show this man some respect!’

“After that you could have literally heard a pin drop, and I explained to them what the law stated and what they as Virginia watermen had to do. They were not pleased, but at least we had some law and order there.”

Pruitt’s ability to deal with tough situations was a large part of his success. As the commercial fishing industry began to decline in the 1990s, urban growth issues began to fill VMRC’s agenda. 

Pruitt was able to deal just as well with pin-striped suited lawyers representing real estate developers as the Chesapeake Bay watermen to whom he had a close connection.

Pruitt only voted on the commission when there was a tie vote. He always made it clear he would vote his conscience and what he believed was right.

Anyone in a position of power for so many years is bound to have run into some critics, but even those could not help but admit, ‘You might not agree with Bill but you can’t help but like him.’

That’s the ultimate tribute to a public servant.

Longtime Urbanna Oyster Festival Foundation board member Charles Bristow said Bill’s wife, Diane, grew up in Urbanna and Bill and Diane lived here several years before he took over the commissioner’s job.

“Diane’s mother and father were Ruth and Paul Pruitt of Urbanna,” said Bristow. “Paul was captain of the oyster festival one year (1990) and the family has strong ties to Urbanna and the Oyster Festival.

“Bill rose to state fame and we are all very proud of him,” he said. “We are honored to have him as our grand marshal.”

Bill and Diane will ride in the parades on Friday night and Saturday during the Oyster Festival.

posted 09.12.2012

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