Sometimes Half a Heart Is Enough
Almost every kid gets a sore throat now and then, and today we don’t worry too much about it. Even if it turns out to be a more serious strep infection, it can be treated effectively with antibiotics. That wasn’t so before doctors started using penicillin in the early 1940s. Before that, a simple sore throat could lead to rheumatic fever, which could cause debilitating heart disease and death.
It was during that pre-penicillin time that Joe Chiodo was born at home into a large Italian family in Farrell, on November 17, 1925. He was one of nine children. Before his encounter with rheumatic fever, he was an active, imaginative boy. In other words, the kind of kid who always gets into trouble and gives his mother fits. Once his mother asked him to clip the wings of their leghorn chickens to keep them from flying over the fence into their neighbor’s yard. But Joe thought his friend had a better idea.
“He said why don’t we just burn the wings and the tails,” Joe said. “So I’m holding one and he’s burning it, and it flew out of my hands and right on top of the hay. The whole barn burned down to the ground.”
But then Joe got rheumatic fever. The doctor told his mother that if somehow he lived through it, he would be never be able to walk because his heart was so damaged.
“But my preacher came and prayed for me. He told my mother in Italian, ‘Don’t think about sickness. The Lord is going to heal your son.’ When I heard that, I jumped straight out of bed and ran to the bathroom.”
It wasn’t exactly a dose of all-healing solid faith. That came later. At first it more hope than faith.
“Half my heart was gone. I didn’t know if I’d make it to 20. Then maybe 25. I thought I’d never make it to 50, then 60.”
Joe made it to 20 not by lying around in bed, but by getting up and doing what had to be done. He quit high school when he was 15 years old to heft sacks of potatoes and to drive truck for J. A. Helfman Produce – things he theoretically shouldn’t have been able to do because of his heart. At age 17 or 18 he started working for Carnegie Steel in Farrell.
Although World War II was raging, Joe was deferred from the military because he had two brothers already in the service. His brother John was killed during the war, but his brother Carmen survived.
While working his day jobs, Joe developed his talent as a singer and musician. In the evenings he played guitar with a band called Variety Four that played in night clubs around the area. After playing professionally about five years, he came close to making it big. He signed a contract to tour with a former Miss Pennsylvania at $75 per week. That was good money in those days. But the day he was to leave on the tour, he was born again. He knew the life style offered by the tour would not be compatible with his new-found faith, so he backed out of the contract.
“They were pretty upset,” he said. “The promoter was a mafia type. I thought they were going to kill me. My father had to go out to talk with them. Miss Pennsylvania said she understood and that they could work it out.”
Joe had to figure out a different way to earn a living. He bought three tandem dump trucks at $10,000 apiece. They were the only tandems around, so D. R. Smalley contracted with him to work on the construction of Route 7 in Ohio, then on a ten-mile stretch of the Ohio Turnpike near Norwalk, Ohio.
Joe’s new-found faith led him to the Italian Christian Church on Emerson Avenue in Farrell, where he met another born-again Christian, Sarah Stigliano.
Like Joe, Sarah was a child of a large Italian family. She was born at home on February 1, 1932.
“My father came here because his brother owned a bakery,” she said. “He stayed here two years, then went back to Italy and married my mother. He was there with her five years. They had three boys and two girls, but two of the boys died. My father came back here, and it was nine years before my mother could join him. She was taking care of my grandmother, who didn’t want to leave Italy. Finally my grandmother agreed to come when she was 83 years old. My mother brought my her, one son, and two daughters. She had five more children here. My oldest sister is 25 years older than me.”
Joe and Sarah got married on June 17, 1950. They have worshipped and served the same church ever since despite changes of location and name. It became the Farrell Christian Assembly, then First Assembly of God on Keel Ridge Road in Hermitage. Sarah has taught Sunday School for fifty years, mostly junior and senior high.
“Joe started the first youth ministry in the church on Emerson Avenue before we got married, and we have worked together in it ever since. He drove the Sunday School bus for years and years. He would bribe the kids to come to Sunday School. We owned a Dairy Queen with Joe’s brother, Dave, on the corner of French Street and Broadway in Farrell, and Joe would give them a sundae or give them a buck apiece. He’d give them a banana split for memorizing a little Bible with the salvation message in it.”
The Chiodos closed the Dairy Queen in 1982 when the surrounding industrial development bought them out. From then until he retired, Joe ran his own construction business – first called American Paving and Construction Company, and later Lucas Construction. When the Dairy Queen closed, Sarah started working for Marc Prizant at General Builders on Budd Street. She still works there.
Music was a big part of Joe’s ministry. He sang bass in the Hymn Time Harmony quartet until one of the group, Palmer Pacillo, got killed in an accident at Sharon Steel.
“When Palmer’s son grew up, he wanted to sing in a Christian group,” Sarah said, “so they started another quartet called the Royal Heirs. They got a bus and toured, mostly in this area. They went as far as Rehersburg, PA, for the dedication of Teen Challenge.”
In recent years Joe’s health has slowed down his involvement with youth ministry, but Sarah is still very involved. She not only teaches Sunday School, but also enjoys participating in other youth activities. She goes roller skating with them on church skate night every month, and on overnight retreats, including the annual convention in Hershey, PA.
As for Joe, would you believe that the kid who wasn’t supposed to be able to walk has grown into an 80-year-old man who still takes on major construction projects for his family. Just a couple of years ago he helped build a two-story barn for his daughter and son-in-law, Joellen and George Arenas.
“Imagine seeing a 78-year-old man balancing heavy plywood on the roof of a two-story building,” George said. “That was a difficult thing to watch.”
Last year he suggested building an addition to their home for an office. He wasn’t content with building a wood-frame room. The project is resulting an a magnificent addition made with about 10 tons of sandstone that matches the architecture of the house. When Joe turned 80 on November 17, the exterior work was done. The interior work will be finished in the coming year.
Sarah is also still very active. She has been walking about 30 miles a week for the past five years.
The Chiodos have three daughters – Sally Lucas (born in 1954), Rita Chiodo (1955), and Joellen (1964). Sally is the mother of their three grandchildren – Jennifer, Steven, and Joshua.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 1, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2007