CURTIS MERRITT (1959-1984)
Excerpt from Once Upon an Island: The History of Chincoteague by Kirk Mariner (2010)
Curtis Merritt, third of the four children of Donald and Shirley Merritt, was still an infant when cancer cost him his vision in one eye. He was completely blind before the age of four.
His first studies were at schools for the blind in Baltimore, Maryland, and Staunton, Virginia, but Curtis was determined to go to public schools like other children. Having been told that he would first have to learn to type, he mastered the typewriter, then persuaded reluctant school officials to accept him, and entered Chincoteague Elementary School in the fifth grade. By the time he graduated from Chincoteague High in 1979, it was an established fact throughout the community that he was as normal and as capable as any sighted classmate. In high school he not only proved himself academically but also played the guitar, took part in school productions, served as announcer at sports events, and enjoyed using the C.B. radio, using “Little Grit” as his “handle.” He was particularly adept at making and fixing things, and in a backyard workshop worked with wood, fixed radios, and tinkered with electronics. “I can do anything anyone else can do,” he used to insist, “except drive a car.”
His cancer returned while he was a senior in high school. He completed one semester at the community college in Lynchburg, where he was on the dean’s list, but was unable to continue. It was during a period of declining health that he decided to learn to carve ducks, and taught himself to do so under the tutelage of an accomplished woodcarver, his uncle Charlton “Cork” McGee. In 1984, the year in which he died, he was named the “Artist of the Year” at the island’s Easter Decoy Festival.
Merritt’s remarkable determination and courage inspired virtually all who knew him, and the community named the new harbor at the southern end of the island in his memory. Ruth Yaffe Radin’s Carver (1990), a work of fiction for children, is based on his life. Most of his duck carvings, admirable in their own right quite apart from his visual handicap, are privately owned.
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