For many years, Keith Pitzer worked as the Executive Director of Friends of the Cheat. Previously, he served as an FOC Board Member. In 1994, he was a part of the formation of FOC. Before that, Keith worked as a manager for Appalachian Wildwaters (AW) in Rowlesburg, WV. He was always tied to the Cheat River. In fact, the Cheat River brought him to WV.
Keith Pitzer was born into a farming family. They leased 600,000 fertile acres in Ohio. After marrying Joan in 1975, inheriting the farm in 1979, and having four sons, Keith and family were developing organic farming techniques and working the land, while homeschooling their children.
After a trip to visit a family friend in the hills of West Virginia – everything changed. During his first trip to WV in 1988, Keith ended up rafting the Cheat River – his friend Chuck worked for AW. Keith and Joan fell in love with the mountains and culture of rural WV. Before long, they decided to sell their farm in OH, and take a chance on a small farm of only 87 acres in between Tunnelton and Rowlesburg, WV. They visited the farm for the first time in 1989; Keith never had to make an offer, after talking and sizing each other up, the owner set the price at $30,000. Keith decided to head to the bank. While explaining to the loan officer he wanted to go from 600,000 acres for 87 in WV, the officer was in disbelief – Keith finally admitted that he fell in love with the Cheat River and WV mountains. Surprisingly, the officer promptly pulled out a photo from his desk drawer of himself whitewater rafting the Cheat Canyon, one of his hobbies – then signed off on their loan. Keith and family moved to the WV farm in 1990.
Joan took a job working as a whitewater consultant for AW, and soon Keith was also working at AW’s Rowlesburg outpost as Cheat River Manager. The guides loved and respected him as a mentor. Keith developed relationships with the whitewater and river community. Fun fact – Keith never learned to swim!
In 1995, when there was a proposal to develop a quarry on Laurel Mountain – a mountain near Keith’s home, Keith acted as an advocate for the Friends of Laurel Mountain and successfully worked with environmental groups to block the proposed quarry. He was also active in the effort to pass the Wild Monongahela Act; federal legislation that protected more than 38,000 acres of national forest lands in the Monongahela National Forest.
In 1994, a huge illegally sealed mine burst open occurred in Albright, WV, and tons of polluted water poured into Muddy Creek, flowing into the Cheat. Not only did this kill all aquatic life in the river for 16 miles downstream and into Cheat Lake, but it was also detrimental to the rafting business. Keith stepped up as a advocate for recreation and environmentalism in Preston County, and was instrumental in the formation of Friends of the Cheat in its infancy.
Keith stayed involved with FOC as he took a job working in Virginia, coming home on weekends. He became a board member in 1997. When the FOC executive director job became available in 2003 – Keith took on the responsibility. His contributions to Friends of the Cheat are so vast. During his 8 year tenure as ED, Keith administered over $2 million in acid mine drainage funds, designed a comprehensive monitoring and mapping program, developed a rail-to-trail route, began the Doug Ferris Outdoor Classroom, and developed river and trail access. He built relationships between the most unlikely parties. His River Hero Nomination was titled Keith Pitzer: The Collaboration Crusader. He was awarded the River Network’s River Hero Award posthumously in 2010. This excerpt from his nomination essay is worthy of inclusion in it’s entirety:
Keith taught himself to play guitar at a young age on a Sears Silvertone. When he was 16, Keith wandered into the upstairs used-instruments room of an appliance store – and met the guitar that would accompany him through his musical life, a 1954 Gibson (born the same year as Keith). He bought it for $100 – and named it Gibbie.
Keith played locally with friends. In 1973, Keith met Joan through a mutual musical friend, and it was love at first sight. They married in 1975, and started playing as a duo. Their children followed in their footsteps: Seth, Zak, and Jake all started on fiddle, with Zak picking up the bass later, Jake the guitar and mandolin, and Jesse the guitar, as well. Quite the talented group, they entertained and hosted friends and family at the farm and drew in a diverse group of musicians.
It wasn’t until living in WV, in 1995, that Keith and Joan realized their dream of recording. Their music reflected their love of living in the WV hills, family life on the farm, and of stewardship and care for the Cheat River and West Virginia. Keith was a gifted song smith, and with Joan at his side, they played and toured all over the East Coast. Soon, they were very well-known and respected. The duo collaborated with other musicians, and formed the band Wolf Creek Session with Alice Fleischmann and Mike Broderick.
They performed at the very first Cheat River Festival – and were expected on that stage every year. Keith and Joan played at every Cheat Fest until he passed away in 2009. This is one of the reasons why it’s so appropriate to build a new Cheat River Festival stage in his name.
The roofless stage located at the Cheat River Festival site is the original, built in 1995 – it’s faithfully supported 24 years of stomping feet, with minimal improvements. Many hours go into preparing it yearly for the fest. It is the wish of Keith’s family, as well as his FOC family, to construct a much-needed new stage in his honor. The Keith Pitzer Memorial Stage Campaign began in 2010, after Keith’s passing, and was fundraised for through emails on Dec. 22nd each year, at the festival, and a few dedicated concerts. Friends of the Cheat made the Keith’s Memorial Stage our 2017 Run For It campaign.
There will be many stages to the Keith Pitzer Memorial Stage Project – the initial goal will be financing the design. Updates to the project will be listed here in the future.