By E.R. West
Recently, David “Ritt” Chitwood, was in his digital audio technology class when the professor asked the students to stand and sing.
Chitwood, 28, left paralyzed and in a wheelchair from an auto accident that nearly took his life and his mind, couldn’t stand. But he didn’t take offense. Chitwood smiled and told the class: “I am mentally standing.”
The response from the blond-headed man with shoulder length hair surprised recording industry professor Trevor de Clercq.
“And I thought [what he said] was a great outlook on life. We should all be mentally standing,” de Clercq said.
On Friday morning, Chitwood’s voice was snubbed out, the result of a tragedy at the corner of Greenland and Middle Tennessee Boulevard. Chitwood was struck by a dump truck, and he died after being rushed to the hospital.
This weekend students and faculty are remembering the man who had seemingly persevered hardships to find his way toward a career in music production.
Students often saw the junior recording industry major rolling in his wheelchair across campus and in the John Bragg Mass Communication Building. He had been accepted into the RIM’s highly competitive candidacy program a little more than a year ago.
“The department and the faculty are numb to hear of his passing,” said Beverly Keel, department chair. “He was always optimistic, and that was contagious. He was the most enthusiastic person about life. He never let his difficulty get in his way.”
Allyson Gelnett, who graduated in 2011, was one of Chitwood’s classmates. She met him and his mom as he was rolling out of Ezell Hall one day.
“He always used to tell me ‘keep on, keeping on,'” Gelnett said, “I just talked to him before the new year started. He loved life and loved his music. And despite everything that happened to him, he never had an ounce of negativity. He put the spotlight on everyone else, and he used to tell me how proud he was of me. When really, I was the one who was proud of him.”
‘Everybody Loved Ritt’
Nothing in Chitwood’s life was simple.
His father passed away in the early 90s when he and his brother were young, leaving him with his mother Margie and his brother William “Beau” Chitwood.
According to his brother, the Nolensville native graduated from Middle College High School in 2003 in Williamson County. His band the Deep Fried Trio evolved into the Deep Fried Five when he and his band mates entered college.
After that, he came to MTSU for three years, but then went to Ave Maria College in Naples, Fla. He then returned to Tennessee because of his love for music.
From there, Chitwood’s life had even more unexpected turns. He found himself wheelchair bound after an October 2006-car accident left him paralyzed in his first semester back as an MTSU student. The accident caused him to go into a coma for six months, and he was paralyzed from the chest down.
“Recovery from that accident was 100 percent self-sufficient,” said David Evans, Chitwood’s uncle and mother’s brother. “The journey was just incredible. His love for music … he was great.”
Days before he was in his first car accident, professor Melissa Wald remembers him clearly from her survey of audio technology class.
“I remember he made a 100 on his first survey of audio technology test,” Wald said. “I told him that he was smart, and his score was rare.”
She was later notified that he would be withdrawing from class, but not for academic reasons. His car accident was too serious for him to return and attend class. Wald kept in contact with his mother, and doctors were uncertain that Chitwood would live. Months later, Wald saw him in the mass communication building during one of his visits to campus.
“He had suffered a lot of brain damage, and he couldn’t remember that he was the kid that made the 100 on that test,” Wald said. “But he would always smile when I said it.”
The accident also meant that he could no longer play in the Deep Fried Five, but he started making electronic jams and placing it on his SoundCloud account. According to his cousins, they loved to listen to his beats, and Chitwood managed to mix music with theology.
“His experience with music is what I will always remember him by,” Evans said.
Despite his ability to stay in the band, he still supported and made efforts to see them play shows when he could.
“Everybody loved Ritt,” said Alex Dilley, the bass player of the band. “We have known each other since high school, and he was great music player and friend of mine.”
In 2011, Chitwood used hippotherapy, or horse therapy, which helped him with his rehabilitation. He found a horse through an Alabama veterinarian in Robertsdale, Ala., who helped him connect with a mustang horse named Top Notch.
According to Guy Busby, the journalist who profiled Chitwood and his horse for the Mobile Press Register, the two were a match made in heaven.
“Dr. Cindy Brasfield was the vet, who was very instrumental in getting the two connected,” Busby said.
According Busby and his profile, Brasfield was responsible for training the horse to respond to various commands, and without knowing, she had trained Top Notch for Chitwood and his rehabilitation.
“Chitwood was just an inspirational person, and the two of them were wonderful,” Busby said. “His mom was very involved in his therapy, and he and his mom were trying to look forward to the future.”
Once he re-enrolled into the university for the third time, he never let his disability get in his way. He had been back for four semesters on campus. His academic adviser, Olivia Young, watched him as he struggled, but was excited when he finally reached his goal.
“Just last week he was telling me how excited he was about all his new audio equipment,” Young said. “He had overcome so much. I never saw him without a smile. He was an exemplary person and student. When I saw other students struggle, I would point him out to other students. If he could do it, anyone could.”
In 2011, Chitwood’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, and she lost her battle in 2012.
His brother William “Beau” Chitwood survives him. Funeral arrangements are still undetermined, as his family is waiting to meet with their family priest. Arrangements will be decided sometime during Saturday.
Keep checking MTSU Sidelines for more updates to this story and follow us on Twitter @mtsusidelines.
Taylor Davis, Daniel Jansouzian and Cat Murphy contributed to this story.