In everyone’s life, opportunities arise to act selflessly for the benefit of others. Sometimes, this opportunity is routine and mundane – to hold open a door, or to give unwanted food to the homeless. Sometimes, this opportunity is more acute and heroic – to rush into a burning building, or to pull somebody from raging waters. And sometimes, in those most rare cases, the opportunity is both acute and routine, where the supreme heroism of saving lives becomes part of one’s routine. Such was the life of Australia’s own Don Ritchie.
Born in 1926, Ritchie served in the Australian Navy during World War II, and for decades after enjoyed a fruitful career as a life insurance sales agent. But his most important work came closer to home. He lived in the house where he was born, just outside of Sydney, near a series of specatcular sheer cliffs known locally as the Gap. Known for their breathtaking views, the Gap was also known for a grimmer reason: as one of Australia’s most commonly visited spots to commit suicide. Jumpers would often journey to the Gap so they could kill themselves at a place of beauty. It is the reason why certain cliffs in England and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco are visited for the same purpose.
Ritchie lived within eyeshot of the cliffs, and for years, took part in the various search and rescue operations there to retrieve jumpers’ bodies. After a while, Ritchie began to watch the cliffs themselves, looking for people standing on the edge, contemplating a decision they would not be able to take back. Ritchie would quietly approach and ask the people what they were doing out on the ledge, or how they were feeling. He would often ask if they would like to talk about what worried them, and if they would like to accompany him back to his house for a cup of tea, or a beer.
Often, just the act of simple conversation was enough to coax people away from the cliff, and in a period spanning some 50 years, Ritchie was officially credited with saving 160 people from killing themselves, though Ritchie himself did not keep count. His family estimates the number of people he saved was much higher, perhaps as many as 500. Many of the people Ritchie saved would write to him afterward to thank him, and to continue the correspondence that saved their lives. For his deeds, Ritchie was given numerous awards, including the Order of Australia and the 2011 Australian of the Year award. He was also known as the “Angel of the Gap” and was regarded as a national hero.
Ritchie was not always successful, though, and there were those who jumped to their deaths right in front of him, including one instance he recalls where a man jumped and his hat blew off his head and landed in Ritchie’s hands.