They Put Their Money Where Their Hearts Are

Littleton, NC, is a small town about an hour and a half northeast of Raleigh. Like many small towns throughout NC, its population has dwindled over the years (under 600 residents) as people continue to move away for school or work due to the lack of opportunities in the area. Thankfully for Littleton, a former resident and his wife has returned to restore the town and ensure its future.

ISE alum Ed Fitts was born and raised in Littleton but left to attend college at NC State in 1957. He often returned to his hometown over the decades, only to see it slowly falling into disrepair as businesses closed up and moved elsewhere. This loss really sunk in when The Fittses would pass Littleton High School, where Ed had played football for the Blue Jays. “It pulled at the heartstrings, and we said, ‘We can’t allow this to just fall apart,'” Deb Fitts told Business North Carolina. 

A beautiful mural painted on a brick wall of a boy jumping off the end of a dock into a lake at sunset. The words, "Historic Littleton, Gateway to Beautiful Lake Gaston" run across the top of the painting
A mural painted on the side of a building on Main Street in Littleton

Their philanthropy began when they decided to start helping the town fund simple projects, like purchasing new Christmas decorations for downtown. Then, they became more involved after buying and demolishing dilapidated homes riddled with crime. When the local performing arts center in the Littleton school auditorium needed roof repairs, the Fittses decided to go all in. It was time to restore this once-thriving town.  

Instead of simply repairing the auditorium’s roof, the fittses decided to buy the entire school and turn it into the new Littleton Academy. As people familiar with the Fittses and NC State University know, they understand the importance of education (See The Fittses and Educational Success below). It would have been cheaper to tear down the building and start over. But for the Fittses, it was more important to preserve the two-story columned building that Ed remembered from his days there in the 1950s. Once the auditorium has been renovated, it will have new seating, lights and sound systems. There will also be a new lobby with a ticket window, bars and offices for staff, and it will seat nearly 300 people.

The newly renovated Lakeland Cultural Arts Center
The newly renovated Lakeland Cultural Arts Center

Littleton Academy will welcome its first students next fall, starting with the elementary students but eventually adding middle and high school students. The school will focus on offering vocational training like heating and air conditioning, and plumbing. This training will enable students to find jobs and start businesses without a college degree. Opening Littleton Academy is critical to the town’s success because it has no schools. The nearest public schools are near Roanoke Rapids, about 10 miles from Littleton and even farther from Lake Gaston.

Along with the school, an amphitheater that seats 1,500 guests is included in the plan. The goal of this venue is to draw people from around the region to Littleton. “We hope to have some really strong entertainment for some outdoor events,” explained Ed Fitts to Lake, The Magazine. 

Littleton Academy opened its doors to elementary-aged students in the Fall of 2022
Littleton Academy opened its doors to elementary-aged students in the Fall of 2022

To help people stay in Littleton after graduation and continue advancing their careers, the Fittses have opened businesses on South Main Street. After moving back to Littleton, they realized businesses were missing. “If we’re gonna live here, we need a place to eat,” Deb Fitts told Business North Carolina. “We just started talking to people. What do you want? What do you need? What do you wish you had?” 

They opened three new businesses by renovating storefronts that had been vacant or full of junk for years — Daphne’s Coffee Shop, Main Street Wines and the Blue Jay Bistro — to draw people downtown. A brewery is currently under construction to bring more business to the area. 

A cellphone screen showing the Ed Fitts Foundation Free WiFi network

Downtown became an even more popular place by connecting Littleton to the world. The Fittses noticed local kids hanging out behind the town hall. They discovered this location was a rare place to access free Wi-Fi. So, the Fittses provided gigabit Wi-Fi through the downtown area and adjacent neighborhoods through the Ed Fitts Charitable Foundation. Now, businesses and guests can easily access free internet.

Helping Littleton grow is part of a larger plan to stimulate economic growth in the town. “We’re hoping that other people coming in will invest into Littleton,” Deb said to Lake, the Magazine. “This isn’t just all about us. This project is about trying to show people this is a great opportunity.” The Fittses are doing what they do best, helping others to grow and thrive.

The Fittses and Educational Success

Throughout their careers, the Fittses have dedicated resources to expanding educational success. Both have supported NC State philanthropically with gifts like the Edward P. Fitts Scholarship in 1999, the Edward P. Fitts Industrial Engineering Professorship in 2002, A. Doug Allison Endowed Professorship in 2006, and the Dopaco, Inc. Endowed Professorship in 2006. “Our goal remains to be one of the top five industrial and systems engineering programs in the world,” Ed Fitts said to the NC State College of Engineering News. “To complete this goal, we need a world-class facility for our students and our faculty to continue to produce world-class students for the state of North Carolina and the nation.” This idea led to the creation of the very first academic department in the history of the University of North Carolina System in 2005 after a gift of $10 million that established the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. The Fittses has been a crucial member in the efforts to expand the ISE Department and build the new Fitts-Woolard Hall on Centennial Campus.