The much-respected communications professor, songwriter, disability advocate and frontman for West Michigan’s The New Midwest passed away last week after a long illness.
As Grand Rapids guitarist Jason Hammond put it, Chris Smit had an “enormous heart for those around him.”
Support our coverage of
West Michigan's music scene
Smit, 48, a longtime communications professor at Calvin University, disability advocate, author and award-winning musician and singer-songwriter, passed away last week after a long illness.
With a colorful personality and a rare gift for socially conscious songwriting, Smit was particularly passionate about utilizing art to change society’s perception of disability.
He co-founded DisArt, a production company and arts and culture organization focused on creating public art events that cultivate and communicate a disability culture, and served as director of the DisArt Festival that showcased art created by those with disabilities.
Born with spinal muscular atrophy, Smit became a “significant leader in the United States and internationally in disability arts and media,” according to colleague Beth Haller.
“The stereotype is that to be a successful disabled person, you have to overcome your disability rather than live through it,” Smith said in 2015 for a Calvin preview of the festival.
Well-known and much beloved as a Calvin communications arts and sciences professor, Smit left Calvin in 2019 to pursue his DisArt work full-time, noting on Facebook that “there’s a lot of work to be done in the world and I am honored to be able to focus my time, energy and resources on helping communities radically change their imagination of disability through art and creativity.”
Smit also made an impact regionally as a recording artist and frontman for the rootsy rock band The New Midwest, which won the Local Spin of the Year award in 2010 for “Commonwealth,” described by The Grand Rapids Press as “an album with a message, with an edge, with real grace” propelled by “a pleading, plaintive tone” in Smit’s voice.
LISTEN: “Remedy,” The New Midwest (from “Commonwealth”)
“I absolutely treasured every time I was with Chris,” said friend and bandmate Hammond. “It is true that we had very high expectations for ourselves and how the music of The New Midwest could be as fresh and exciting as possible. But I have to remind myself that amidst the seriousness of our creative energy, there was so much laughter and fun. Chris was hilarious and made everyone around him smile and laugh.”
Hammond said Smit has a knack for “creating brilliant song ideas by himself inside his computer. … I remember being totally blown away at the chord progressions and unique ideas all created by him on digital instruments.”
A much-shared 2010 profile of Smit by writer Terri Finch Hamilton in The Grand Rapids Press described him as writing songs that “stir people’s souls.”
A BIG PERSONALITY AND AN INDOMITABLE SPIRIT
“It doesn’t take long before you notice Chris’ personality more than his chair,” bandmate and longtime pal Michael Van Houten told Hamilton. “It’s a big personality.”
His indomitable spirit endured even amid recent health issues and the involvement of hospice care. Van Houten told Local Spins that Smit had been hospitalized in October and was diagnosed with dire kidney issues, though he had been in “very good spirits and had great energy” just a few days before he died.
Memorials and tributes to Smit have flooded Faceook and social media from students, colleagues and friends who described Smit as kind, thoughtful, funny, smart, “a bright light with an infectious smile’ and “a force beyond description.”
“He had a deep sense of commitment to his wife, Lisa, and his son, Moses, as well as his brothers and folks,” Hammond said.
“His brother, Randy, was a few years older than Chris but I swear Randy was always at our gigs supporting Chris and the band. … I am so so grateful for the time I had with Chris and how our collaborative efforts musically mirrored the lives we were living at the time. Chris was a precious gift.”
A public memorial service for Smit is being planned for later this year.
LISTEN: “Glory Waits for No One,” The New Midwest (from “Commonwealth”)
Copyright 2023, Spins on Music LLC