Festival director dies from COVID-19

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Festival director dies from COVID-19

By Catharin Shepard •

Staff Writer •

Melissa Kaye Pittman, known and loved by many in Hoke County as executive director of the North Carolina Fall Festival, died last week at the age of 54.

Pittman passed away Friday, November 6 at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital after being hospitalized with COVID-19. A celebration of life is set for Saturday, November 14 at Pittman Grove Baptist Church, where Pittman was an active and long-time member of the church family.

Pittman graduated from Hoke County High School with the Class of 1984. She first became involved with the North Carolina Turkey Festival that same year as a volunteer. She worked with the festival as a volunteer for many years, and in 2007 was hired to run it.

As executive director, Pittman led a volunteer board in organizing the festival every year. She celebrated the Turkey Festival’s 30th anniversary in 2014. She guided the annual event through two name changes, first when the festival shifted focus to become the North Carolina Poultry Festival, and then when it became the Fall Festival as it is known today.

Pittman’s dedicated work with the festival saw the event go on in sunshine and rain, even in 2018 when it was postponed due to Hurricane Florence. This year was the first time in the festival’s history that the committee had to cancel it, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Pittman and the volunteer board were still looking toward the 2021 Fall Festival when she became ill and was hospitalized.

Besides her work with the festival, Pittman was active with the Raeford-Hoke Chamber of Commerce. She served on the board of directors and volunteered with many Chamber events, from taking tickets for the annual dinner to dressing up as one of Santa’s elves for children meeting Santa Claus at Raeford-Hoke Hometown Christmas. In 2011, she was part of the efforts to host Hoke County’s centennial celebration.

As part of her work with the Fall Festival, Pittman also coordinated a 9/11 remembrance ceremony each year. This past September, she was part of the dedication ceremony for the new Freedom Park installation in downtown Raeford.

Pittman was also well known for her work with Pittman Grove Baptist Church, where she was a member. She helped feed the homeless, sang in the choir and worked with youth groups.

She was an active volunteer in many other organizations that supported the people of Raeford and Hoke County, and beyond. She formed the Hoke Community Choir, which performs gospel music at area churches and events. She volunteered with local nursing homes, helping senior citizens enjoy crafting activities.

Jackie Lynch, former director of the Raeford-Hoke Chamber of Commerce, first got to know Pittman in the 1980s when both of them were volunteering with the Turkey Festival. They ended up working closely together on the festival and later, on Chamber of Commerce events.

Pittman was “constantly doing and giving,” Lynch said.

“She was always one of the first to volunteer to help do things,” she said. “She was always thinking of new and improved ways of doing things. Raeford’s going to be lost without her.”

Raeford Mayor John K. McNeill described Pittman as an asset to the city, who worked hard to bring the Fall Festival to life.

“She had a heart in the right place. She was dedicated to those causes and very instrumental in celebrating Veterans’ Day and (remembering) 9/11. She did a lot of research for that and we’re going to miss her,” McNeill said.

Kim Kitchens grew up with Pittman from the time they were born, and the two remained friends throughout their lives. Pittman was always surrounded by friends and family, loved ones said. She had a way of recruiting those close to her to get them involved with the festival and other community events.

“We pretty much followed her into anything,” Kitchens said.

Dee Pittman Inman, Pittman’s cousin, was one of the people recruited to help with the festival. Her cousin always had a heart for being inclusive of the entire community, Inman said.

“Melissa wanted something to do that would bring everyone together, that was what Melissa did all the time. She wanted people to have events where people could keep in touch, and would do anything she could and include everybody, every color, it didn’t matter to Melissa. She would involve everyone of every age,” Inman said.

“If someone wanted something done in Hoke County, Melissa was who they called because Melissa wouldn’t stop until it was done. She made it her passion to help people.”

Pittman’s faith and her desire to minister to others was central to her life, her loved ones said.

“She would just come with us and she would be there talking about God and Christ and fellowshipping. She never met a stranger, she would witness to everybody,” Inman said. “It didn’t matter where she was at, she would witness Christ to everybody.”

It was the happy moments that Kitchens remembers most fondly from their lifelong friendship. They would go to movies together, have long conversations at PK’s Grill, and often drove around Raeford just to spend time with each other.

“Riding around in the car, I’d drive, I always drove where ever we went, and no matter what we were doing, we would ride all over Raeford up and down every street with the windows rolled down the radio blasting, singing along, acting like we were teenagers again,” Kitchens said.

Pittman especially loved children, and tended to “adopt” any children of friends or family that she met, her loved ones said.

“If there was a child around by the time wherever we were at, by the time it was over, Melissa had adopted that child and that was one of her children then,” Kitchens said.

Pittman’s mother, Judy Pittman, said her daughter was an extraordinary woman.

“She loved with all she had to give, and she would work when she didn’t feel like it, but you would never know it,” she said.

Sometimes people asked Pittman why she had chosen to stay in Hoke County. Her friends and family knew the answer.

“She would never have left Hoke County. She absolutely loved Hoke County,” Inman said.

Pittman was born August 3, 1966 in Cumberland County to her parents, Judy Melton Pittman and the late Jimmy Pittman. She was preceded in death by her father; paternal grandparents A.W. and Mae Pittman; maternal grandparents Odell and Sadie Melton; six aunts; one uncle; and a special cousin Beth Egan. She is survived by her mother and her sweet dog Sophie; uncles, Mike Melton and his wife Shirley and Johnny Melton all of Raeford; aunt, Carolyn Whitley of Rocky Mount; uncle, Larry Pittman of Camden County; and many cousins, friends, and extended family.

“Melissa had no children of her own but was blessed with many that she loved beyond words,” her obituary said.

A visitation will be held at Pittman Grove Baptist Church from 11 a.m.-noon Saturday, November 14, with a celebration of life beginning at noon. Pastor Kenneth Williams will officiate the service. In lieu of flowers, send donations to Pittman Grove Baptist Church, 4921 Pittman Grove Church Road, Raeford, N.C. 28376. Crumpler Funeral Home in Raeford is assisting the family.





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