Community mourns Pitcairn's death

The wooden pews were filled Friday morning as friends and family remembered slain Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn as a young man with an "intense" and "inquisitive" nature.

"He grabbed you and you just wanted to be where he was," said Chris "Suds" Southard, youth director at First Presbyterian Church in North Palm Beach, Fla., where the funeral was held.

Standing behind the pulpit, Rev. Ronald Hilliard tried to comfort the grief-stricken, still reeling from the death of the Jupiter, Fla., native who was robbed at knifepoint Sunday night while walking to his Charles Village apartment.

In North Palm Beach, the reverend urged that the family not to lose sight of the vibrant life Pitcairn was able to lead.

"The value of life is not in longevity … the value of life is based on the quality of the chapters that God has written," he said.

The funeral brought together those who knew Pitcairn throughout his life, cut short just two days before his 24th birthday: graduates from The Benjamin School, which Pitcairn attended for 14 years; classmates from Kalamazoo College in Michigan; and colleagues from Johns Hopkins medical center in Baltimore.

"We are just devastated as a school community," said Robert Goldberg, head of school at The Benjamin School. "Our heart is just so heavy for the Pitcairn family."

Pitcairn, a researcher at a cell engineering laboratory on the Johns Hopkins medical campus, was on the phone with his mother, Gwen Pitcairn, around 11 p.m. Sunday when he was confronted by a man and a woman in the 2600 block of St. Paul St., police say. His mother listened as he pleaded with the robbers and was stabbed in the chest.

Authorities have charged John Alexander Wagner, 34, and Lavelva Merritt, 24, who police say were "hunting to rob someone," with first-degree murder in his death.

During the 90-minute service, Hilliard urged the family not to focus on the tragic circumstances surrounding Pitcairn's death. He suggested that the family may be wondering what would have happened if circumstances had been different.

"We may be sad about the book ending before we were ready," said Hilliard, but that sadness should not overshadow the value and impact that Pitcairn's life had.

"The reality is that in God's eyes, Stephen's life was complete," he said.

Speakers largely avoided discussing the tragic circumstances surrounding Pitcairn's death, instead paying tribute to his Christian faith.

Emily and Elise Pitcairn remembered their brother as intelligent and tenacious. Nancy Reugg, Pitcairn's former fourth-grade teacher, said that many details about the young man had faded from her memory over the years, but his curiosity remained in sharp focus.

The service, held inside First Presbyterian's flower-filled sanctuary, featured a number of quotations from Psalms. Those in attendance sang "Amazing Grace" and watched slides of pictures of Pitcairn, accompanied by music played by his former guitar teacher.

Some of the photographs of Pitcairn as a small child elicited sniffles, tears and even momentary laughter. One photograph featured a young Pitcairn wearing oversized sunglasses, and, momentarily, people laughed.

The Sun-Sentinel of South Florida is a Tribune Co. newspaper.

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