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Drawing hope from trauma: Rhome Fire chief inspires through art

By Austin Jackson | Published Saturday, January 19, 2019
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Artist at Work

ARTIST AT WORK – Rhome Fire Chief Darrell Fitch showcases his drawings in the Big Dawg Shirt Shack warehouse. Fitch’s right arm was severely hurt after an accident with a feed grinder when he was 4. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

With a scarred arm and a steady hand, one local artist that goes by “Chief” puts the finishing touches on a piece at his studio warehouse in Rhome.

Darrell Fitch, a retired professional firefighter and current Rhome Fire Chief, spends most of his time in the solace of his office, far from the sirens and the flames, expressing a hidden talent born out of tragedy.

His drawing – “Yellow Jacket” – will soon be the logo for the Boyd Fire Department. It’s one of the countless pieces and drawings Fitch has brought to life in the last 10 years.

His artistic endeavors started in 1970 with trauma and a crayon.

At dawn on Thanksgiving Day, Fitch said he woke up and decided to help his dad on his family farm in Stony. It was either that, or watch TV inside.

Fitch walked into the barn as the feed grinder whirred to life. As he brushed past it, wearing a windbreaker on the brisk November morning, a string from Fitch’s jacket became snarled in the grinder, pulling his body into spinning metal.

His father heard screams and ran to shut off the machine, but not before Fitch’s right arm became trapped in the gnashing teeth of the grinder.

Fitch’s dad pulled him free and ran, carrying the 4-year-old to the house with gnarled muscle clinging to loose bone.

“The next thing I remember is he’s squeezing me, and we’re running through the field,” Fitch said. “He was hurdling barbed wire fences. They threw me in the car, and my mom was doing 120 mph to Denton.”

When Fitch arrived at Homer Flow Memorial Hospital in Denton, the prognosis for a normal life was bleak.

“They flat out told [my parents], ‘he’ll never use his arm again,'” Fitch said. “I was so young, to tell a 4-year-old that they could never use your arm again. To me it was my arm, I didn’t let it stop me.”

After 12 surgeries and living out of hospital rooms, Fitch overcame the odds.

In those hospital rooms, Fitch found the ability to reuse his arm, as well as his calling and his voice as an artist.

Fireman Up

FIREMAN UP – Rhome Fire Chief Darrell Fitch works on his logo for the Boyd Fire Department at his warehouse Wednesday. After an accident as a child with a feed grinder, doctors said he would never use his arm again. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Fitch’s upper body was in a cast and movement was limited, so he put crayon and pencil on paper, drawing the world around him.

“Drawing was one of the few things I could do,” Fitch said. “It was more therapy for me. It helped me. There was so much solitary time that I couldn’t go play with my brothers, so I just picked up a pencil and crayons and started drawing.”

To this day, Fitch can’t bend his arm normally, and he still has massive scars where plates have replaced muscle. But the injury has never stopped him.

The evidence of the horrific accident is hidden behind a shirt sleeve, much like his skill in art.

He played baseball for 13 years and eventually found a career as a firefighter – something he wanted to do ever since the accident.

“From that moment on, seeing what firefighters did, I knew what that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up,” Fitch said.

As he grew up and grew strong, he stopped drawing. He worked at North Richland Hills Fire Department for 27 years before retiring in 2017.

“I drew through junior high, but I put the pencil down until 2008,” Fitch said.

It took an airport and hours of boredom to reignite Fitch’s passion for drawing.

Fitch and his wife, Candy, faced a 52-hour layover. After re-reading Sports Illustrated for what seemed like the thousandth time, Fitch said he picked up the pencil again and was overcome with a familiar feeling – the joy and comfort of drawing.

The sketch reignited the flame, and Fitch’s hidden talent came as a shock to Candy.

“I just picked up a piece of paper and drew Marion Barber out of the magazine and my wife was like, ‘oh my gosh’ and I thought, you know what, that just calmed me down from the whole miserable trip.”

From then on he kept sketching. He drew what inspired him – sports and firefighters.

In doing so, he’s given inspiration back.

For a while, his drawings stayed on his shelf at his home, but Candy encouraged him to get his work out to the public.

He drew with pencil and paper, and eventually unveiled them to the public. Over the years, he’s been published, contributing his drawings to books, comics and magazines, largely focusing on those in the fire service, bringing both humor and inspiration to the craft.

While never undergoing formal art classes, Fitch’s talents grew to using digital mediums, scanning his hand drawn work and creating designs through Photoshop.

After retiring from full-time fire service in 2017, he’s found another full-time job in drawing while still serving as a volunteer fire chief in Rhome.

He and Candy started a screen printing business, Big Dawg Shirt Shack LLC, and a division called Fireman Up, where all the art comes directly from Fitch’s hands.

“That’s how Fireman Up started; it was motivational,” Fitch said. “Being a firefighter, it’s what I knew.”

His art can be found on paper and in magazines, but also T-shirts, hats and emblazoned on fire trucks from Texas to California.

Their business started in their garage and has grown to a warehouse and a Facebook page for Fireman Up that has more than 44,000 followers.

Looking back, Fitch is thankful for the adversity and the accident.

Everything came together for the firefighter, who to this day still yearns for the adrenaline of a fully involved fire and saving lives. He’s been able to bring his worlds together, as a father, husband, firefighter and artist.

“The trials in my life have just made me stronger,” Fitch said. “That was one thing they always told me in the fire station, ‘Why do you do it?’ because I was always doing all this drawing. It’s in my blood. I enjoy it.”

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