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INDIANAPOLIS -- Mike Pitts, the executive director of the Indiana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association (IPCA) who helped unite several states to form one of the industry's most promising trade shows, died last Wednesday of an apparent drowning in St. Croix.
The incident occurred as Pitts, 54, and his wife, Gayla, were celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary and her birthday.
"We're just devastated. He's the best boss we ever had. The petroleum marketers in this state are suffering a big loss," said Kerry Waite, who joined the IPCA three years ago to oversee membership services and tend to the group's 400 full-time and associate members.
Waite had returned home after picking up her son from pre-school when she learned of the news. "My husband got a call and told me. It's very sad," she told CSNews Online. "He had the ability to make everyone, no matter what walk of life, feel comfortable."
As industry officials learned of the news, a portrait had been etched of a clean-living, methodical man known for his political acumen, unpretentious way, dry wit and love for the Hoosiers of Indiana University.
Jay Ricker, owner of the 20-store Ricker Oil Co. in Anderson, Ind., had planned to join the Pittses for the weekend jaunt. The Rickers and Pitts owned property at Cordry Lake in Brown County and spent most weekends together.
"He was at the prime of his life," said Ricker, who heard the news Wednesday from Pitts' brother, Bill. "Mike was one of the best executives in the business. He was very unassuming. He didn't have a big ego. You deal with a lot of association executives who think the association is about them. Mike was someone who was about the association and made the association one of the strongest in the industry."
According to Ricker, the Pittses had been swimming near a resort when Mike, known as an excellent swimmer, called for help. "Gayla got to shore and got help. They tried to get a boat but the motor wouldn't start."
At least 10 minutes elapsed before Pitts's body was recovered and two trained paramedics who were on the same vacation tried to revive him.
As for Pitts's role in the industry, Ricker praised his friend's adroitness in scoring one of the country's most progressive leaking underground storage tank programs and other environmental pieces. "It's not one big thing but a lot of little things that Mike did that gave us a voice in the legislature," Ricker said, noting that it was Pitts who was instrumental in moving the association's headquarters closer to the State House.
Pitts, who spent more than 30 years in legislative and association management, spent the past 11 years as executive director of both the IPCA and the Indiana Propane Gas Association.
More comfortable working from the sidelines than center stage, the affable husband and father of two was a skilled negotiator, whether it was massaging controversial legislation through the Indiana State House or bridging differences within the petroleum ranks.
Pitts's deft touch was felt earlier this year with the launch of the inaugural M-PACT trade show. An acronym for Midwest Petroleum and Convenience Show, the event this year attracted jobbers and convenience operators from Illinois and his home state, Indiana. Recently, two other states, Kentucky and Ohio, agreed to join, moving closer to Pitts's vision of a five-state show. Michigan is the final leg.
"Mike had pushed for M-PACT for eight years," said Ricker, who was among the first association presidents to work with Pitts. "He was finally seeing it all come together."
"So many interstates intersect with Indianapolis that he thought it was a natural for a four- or five-state show," said Dan Gilligan, president of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America. "This is a perfect example of what he was all about. This is not a show that just took off. Mike was extremely patient and kind of nursed things along."
Gilligan added, "there are people who talk about doing things and there are others who get things done. He always moved things steps forward at a time."
Pitts is survived by his wife, Gayla Simpkins Pitts; children, Andrew and Laura; brother William Pitts; sisters Jean Matthews and Pat Ball. Services will be held Thursday, 11 a.m. at the Crown Hill Funeral Home in Indianapolis.
Memorial contributions may be sent to the Tabernacle Youth Recreation Program, Visiting Nurse Service Home for the Dying and Poor, or Alzheimer's Association Services.