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Don Ritchie (1926-2012)

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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. 

There is a high burnout rate for suicide counselors, especially those who work on hotlines. Sometimes, the calls are from people who have already taken action against their own life and simply want to hear another person’s voice as the slip away. Sometimes the calls are from people who cannot be dissuaded from their course of action. And for most, the strain of that kind of work can only be endured for so long. There are many who would simply have moved away from the Gap, unwilling to bear witness to the nearly 50 suicides that happen there each year. There are those who might have stayed, but would choose, literally, to look the other way. Ritchie did neither, choosing instead to stay in his family home and make a difference at a place where there was nobody else to do so. His actions were the very definition of selfless spirit and heroic compassion. And he did it all without any formal support. No money, no non-profit backing, no governmental agencies. Just a man living near a cliff unafraid to ask desperate people if they would like a cup of tea.

Much has been made of Ritchie’s legacy as the Angel of the Gap. Little is known about his life insurance career, although the two do not seem so far apart. One line of work is all about supporting the sanctity of life, preserving families and planning for the future. The other is about selling life insurance. For Ritchie, it seems that the reason for doing one came from the same wellspring for doing the other. And while one can imagine many of Ritchie’s fellow agents acting similarly, one also wonders how much more good could be done if life insurance carriers themselves supported suicide outreach programs and gave the Don Ritchies of the world the ability to do more in places where simple kindness at a cliffside is not enough. Or simply raised the call among their own ranks to follow Ritchie’s example. Or devoted some of the resources given annually to charitable causes to support suicide prevention programs. The world was lucky to have Don Ritchie. There could be thousands to carry on his work if they were only given the encouragement to do so, and the business of ensuring life is perhaps better placed to do that than any other. All it needs is the same kind of courage Ritchie showed every day. Surely it exists. 

Don Ritchie
In this photo taken May 25, 2010, Don Ritchie looks out his window at his home in Sydney, Australia. For almost 50 years Ritchie, widely regarded as a guardian angel, has used simple kindness to shepherd countless suicidal people away from the edge. ( AP Photo/Jeremy Piper)