A Congressional Gold Medal recipient for his service in World War II, Clayton Pitre was a trailblazer in the U.S. Marines, a master storyteller and a staunch advocate for education. 

Pitre died Jan. 1 at Harborview Medical Center of complications from a heart condition. He was 96.

Born on June 30, 1924, Pitre was raised on a farm in Louisiana, one of seven children, where he spoke Creole French along with English. He left school in the ninth grade because there was a lack of further education opportunities in his area.

In 1943, he was one of the first Black men to join the U.S. Marines and trained at the segregated Camp Montford Point in North Carolina. During his service in World War II, Pitre was stationed in Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, and later fought in the Battle of Okinawa in Japan.  He oversaw the evacuation of the Japanese army in China before he was honorably discharged in 1946.

“Mr. Pitre was quite a trailblazer,” Michael Johnson, western region vice president of the Montford Point Marine Association Inc., said. “There were no African Americans in the Marine Corps until 1942, so that was the Marine Corps experiment to see if African Americans would be able to serve in the capacity of the Marines, the same as Tuskegee airmen did during World War II.” 

Pitre and his fellow Marines helped initiate the Civil Rights movement through their efforts to integrate the U.S. armed forces, which was successful in 1949, Johnson said.

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Shortly after he completed his service, Pitre followed his older brothers to Seattle. He completed high school at Seattle’s Broadway Edison Technical School while he worked at Fort Lawton in the Magnolia neighborhood. In 1957, a family friend introduced him to his wife, Gloria, a French professor, during her visit from Oklahoma. They bonded over the French language and married a year later.

The Pitres had three sons — Clayton Jr., Michael, and Paul — and created a home in the Mount Baker neighborhood for seven decades. Pitre attended Seattle University where he received a bachelor’s degree in accounting, while selling real estate and working for the U.S. Postal Service.

After graduating in 1968, Pitre became the Director of Housing Development for the Central Area Motivation Program, where he worked with churches and the Urban League to build low-income housing. He later worked for the Veterans Administration for 11 years until his retirement in 1984.

All the while, Pitre was an active fraternity member of the Kappa Alpha Psi’s Seattle alumni chapter since 1949. Started in 1911 at Indiana University and formerly known as Kappa Alpha Nu, the organization became the first incorporated Black fraternity in the United States.

Aubrey Scott, former fraternity president, said his admiration for Pitre led him to join Kappa Alpha Psi. Scott grew up in Mount Baker near the Pitre family and was good friends with Clayton Pitre Jr., who served as a role model throughout Scott’s life, he said.  

“He did the right thing because it was the right thing, more than trying to seek attention and accolades,” Scott said. Pitre was a mediator during disagreements within the chapter and encouraged productive discussions. “He had integrity and a sense of commitment; he embodied the kind of qualities that anyone would aspire to imitate,” Scott said.

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During his retirement, Pitre helped found the African American Dollars for Scholars Foundation with Kappa Alpha Psi, where he helped raise money for students’ college education.

“Clayton had a strong commitment to college accessibility for the youth in our community. He regularly worked with young people on their college applications, especially to Jackson State University where one of our participants achieved a full ride scholarship with Mr. Pitre’s guidance,” Linda Taylor, the Urban League’s vice president of housing & financial empowerment said.

 Pitre believed that education was the key to success. “In the Black community in general, education was so important for us to be able to survive and thrive,” his son Paul said.

As a father, Pitre was a master storyteller, philosophical, coolheaded and ethical, his three sons said. During their daily phone calls, Clayton Jr. said his father discussed the progression of the Civil Rights movement and how it related to the current push for racial justice. “He was always forward looking and had an optimistic perspective about how we will prevail, we will move on, we will grow,” Clayton Jr. said.

Michael described him as a great father who was dedicated to the family, and “worked endlessly to build a better community for all.”

On June 26, 2012, Pitre was among over 400 Montford Point Marine veterans who received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award issued by Congress. Johnson of the Montford Point Marine Association , recalled tears streaming down the men’s faces as they received the awards. They returned to the hotel after the ceremony as supermen, Johnson said.

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“He had a vision and a great mind, and he never stopped until the day he passed away telling everybody about how they can achieve if they put their minds to it,” Johnson said.

In 2015, the Seattle Seahawks selected Pitre to raise the 12th Man Flag at CenturyLink Field in honor of his Congressional Gold Medal.

Pitre is survived by his three sons, seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren. His wife, Gloria, died last year. A virtual funeral will be held next month, followed by an outdoor celebration planned for September 4. Donations can be made to the Seattle Chapter of the United Negro College Fund.