Loving couple's quest to help cut short
By Jason Cato The Herald

(Published October 26 2003)

CHESTER -- A row of blackened nails lined the charred planks of what was left of the house hidden at the end of a dirt drive in western Chester County.

Tilted in different directions, each nail head stood about an inch above where the pointed end dove into the thick oak. This was all that was left of the floor of the retirement home belonging to Joe Frank Pittman and his wife of 44 years, Joy.

A hunter and fisherman, Joe, 66, retired after 42 years with CSX railroad in Florida, and the couple moved to South Carolina.

The former high school sweethearts had no way of knowing, when they moved to Chester in 1997, that their retirement would last only four years. They certainly didn't know when they took in their 12-year-old grandson in October 2001, a week and a day after Joy's 62nd birthday, their lives would end five weeks later.

Their bodies were found early Nov. 29, 2001, inside the rubble of their Slick Rock Road home. Someone had shot the Pittmans while they slept and set their home on fire.

Christopher Pittman, their grandson, was later charged with the murders.

"We all agree on one thing, our parents were the greatest people we ever knew," Joe D. Pittman, the couple's youngest son and the boy's father, said the night after the bodies were found. Seated next to him at a family friend's Chester home was his sister, Melinda Pittman Rector, and their older brother, James "Barry" Pittman.

The three had last been together in December 2000, when the entire family celebrated Christmas at their parents' recently completed house. A year later, they were back, sifting through the ashes.

"They were proud of this," Joe D. Pittman said, holding up a photograph of his parents' snow-covered home.

Joe Frank Pittman was born in a Lando mill house on the other side of Chester County on Jan. 23, 1935. His mother died two weeks later, and his father loaded the family into a horse-drawn wagon and headed to Summerfield, Fla.

In high school, Joe met Joy Myrell Roberts, the sister of a friend and teammate on the school's six-man football team.

After high school, Joe took a job laying tracks for Seaboard Coastline Railroad, which merged with Chessie System Railway to become CSX. He was later drafted into the U.S. Army but returned to the railroad and worked his way up to being an engineer. He rode the rails for the last time July 27, 1997.

A childhood photograph of Joy shows a beautiful girl with long, braided pig tails and a broad smile revealing a broken front tooth. She was a natural musician who could also paint, sing, dance and throw a baseball.

Cedar trees

In Florida, Nanna and Pop-Pop, as they were called, started a tradition of planting a cedar tree each time a grandchild was born. In all, they had nine.

A retired receptionist with Sumter County schools in Florida, Joy busied herself in her new town as a volunteer at the Chester County Hospital and by making crafts.

"She had magic in her hands," said Lucy Weir, her closest friend in Chester. A straw hat with wine-colored ribbon that Joy made still hangs in Weir's bedroom.

Devout Christians, the Pittmans became members at New Hope United Methodist -- a small church that has stood atop a hill near their West Chester home since 1832. Joy played the organ, and Joe sang in the choir.

It was that spiritual connection that led the couple to help anyone they could, their children said, including Christopher. It also would have made them strong enough to forgive their grandson, they added.

"Love makes everything right," Barry Pittman said. "We may never know why it happened, but I know my parents would forgive anyone for anything."

Contact Jason Cato at 329-4071 or