UNLV faculty member died piloting his ultralight, single passenger plane
The UNLV campus will be short one smiling face come fall, but the image of that face has left a lasting impression on many Rebels.
J. Michael Stitt, an associate professor and undergraduate coordinator of UNLV’s English department, died after his ultralight plane crashed in a dry lake bed near Boulder City on July 16.
According to Boulder City officials, the exact cause of the accident is still unknown.
“Students will benefit from his research and work for a long time to come,” said Professor Douglas Unger, head of the English department. “It’s a blow to our department…We will really miss him.”
A member of the English department faculty since the fall of 1981, Stitt integrated his background in folklore and medieval studies with his interest in technology to develop innovative course materials including syllabuses and Web sites for the university.
Students and faculty members described Stitt as eccentric, adventurous and wise. He recently spent six months in Bulgaria as a Senior Fulbright Scholar.
Stitt’s hobbies ranged from cooking and video poker to spelunking, piloting gliders and, most recently, piloting ultralight planes.
“[Stitt] was excited as a kid on Christmas with his new ultralight,” Unger said. “He was always looking for the next adventure in his teaching and in his life.”
In 2006, Stitt was awarded UNLV’s College of Liberal Arts Schmeidal Award, a prestigious recognition based on career-long service to the university and the community.
English chair Professor Richard Harp described Stitt as “a truly all-around man” and “a rock in the department.”
English major Adina Martinez took Stitt’s History of the English Language course during the second summer session this year.
It was Martinez’s second course with Stitt and she expressed shock over the idea that it was one of the last the professor taught.
“Although I wasn’t personally interested in the subject matter at hand, I kept taking his courses because of his voracious passion for teaching students and the passion for the subject matter itself —his life’s work,” Martinez said.
“He was always so full of life and reminded me a lot of a real-life Gandalf,” she said.
Stitt had just been granted leave on July 1 for an academic sabbatical to travel abroad and develop his next book, exploring the transformations of dragon myths from around the world.
In 1992, Stitt authored “Beowulf and the Bear’s Son: Epic, Saga and Fairytale in the Northern Germanic Area,” which was praised by Professor John Miles Foley of the University of Missouri, a specialist in oral traditions, as the best book on “Beowulf” in the twentieth century.
“He had glasses and sparkling eyes [and] a big full beard and wore red suspenders and T-shirts with humorous sayings on them,” Martinez said. “He was always laughing…He always had a smile on his face.”
Harp commented on the importance of welcoming public recognition of Stitt’s life.
“We really want to remember him in the best possible way,” he said. “We don’t want to forget him.”
Hudgins also remembered his friend fondly.
“[Stitt's] friends treasured him and I’m proud to have been among them,” he said. “There is much to celebrate in the life of Michael Stitt, which, I trust, will give us all some degree of comfort.”
A small funeral for family, colleagues and close friends was held Saturday. A university memorial service will be held at the Tam Alumni Center at 3:00 p.m. on September 22.
He would have been 58 years old.