For 50 years, Don Ritchie would wake up in the morning and take in the panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean from his Sydney home. But he also looked for “anyone standing too close to the precipice.”
Mr. Don Ritchie saved over 160 people from jumping off the cliff at Australia’s infamous suicide spot. Although he died 11 years ago, most people remember him for his cheerful smile, kind eyes, soft voice, and famous words that persuaded hundreds of hopeless people not to commit suicide.
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He would slowly approach you and ask: “Is there something I could do to help you? Why don’t you come over and have a cup of tea?”
“And that was all that was often needed to turn people around, and he would say not to underestimate the power of a kind word and a smile,” his daughter, Ms. Ritchie Bereny, remembers.
That’s how Mr. Don Ritchie earned the moniker the Angel or Watchman of The Gap.
The early life of Mr. Don Ritchie
Born in 1926 in Vaucluse, Mr. Don Ritchie attended Vaucluse Public School and Scots College. He joined the Royal Australian Navy on HMAS Hobart during World War II. He witnessed the Japanese surrender at Tokyo Bay.
Later, Mr. Don Ritchie became a life insurance salesman for a multinational firm and built a stellar career from his 30s to 60s. Then, in 1964, he moved to the house on Old South Head Road near the southern end of Gap Park, where he lived until 2012, when he passed.
The sheer cliffs at the Gap at the mouth of Sydney Harbor have claimed countless lives for years. It’s a notorious suicide point with only a three-foot fence separating desperate people from cliffs below. At one point, over 50 people committed suicide there every year — one person per week.
From his home, Mr. Ritchie would spot a person on the cliff, and he would slowly approach them from his home. Then, at the edge, he would ask if he could help or welcome them home for tea and a listening ear.
“You can’t just sit there and watch them,” he once said. “You gotta try and save them. It’s pretty simple.”
His dedication to saving the hopeless
Mr. Ritchie was modest and didn’t do what he did for fame or recognition. Nevertheless, those who accepted his offer were welcome to his home for tea and a chat. Sometimes, all people need is a listening ear, a kind smile, and someone who doesn’t judge. And Mr. Don Ritchie gave them just that — he never pried, advised, or counseled.
“My ambition has always been just to get them away from the edge, to buy them time, to allow them to reflect and give them a chance to realize that things might look better the next morning,” he once said.
Most survivors were often thankful he was there for them that day and came to thank him later. Even close relatives of those he couldn’t save came back to thank him, knowing their loved ones had a loving ear at the end.
The day Mr. Ritchie nearly died
When he was younger, Mr. Ritchie sometimes risked his life by climbing over the fence and trying to restrain the would-be suicides while Moya, his wife, called the police. But one woman was so intent on going over that she launched onto the cliff. Mr. Ritchie was the only one between her and her death below. Thankfully, she wasn’t successful because he, too, would have gone over with her.
However, he maintained a safe distance in his later years and invited people to his house.
Sadly, his kind smile and soft words couldn’t save everybody, and some people still jumped. People’s reasons for suicide range from medical issues to mental illnesses, and you can’t save everyone. Still, he would help the police in their recovery efforts.
When he was alive, he said he never felt haunted by those he couldn’t save because he tried to help everybody to the best of his abilities.
In 2006, the government acknowledged Mr. Ritchie’s effort and gave him a Medal of the Order of Australia. He also received the Local Hero Award for Australia in 2011, and a year later, he died from cancer at 86.
A kind word and a smile
Mr. Ritchie was a rare “angel” who was there for people in their hour of need. When asked what will happen when he’s no longer there, he chuckled and replied: “I imagine somebody else will come along and do what I’ve been doing.”
He reminds us to be kind because most people are trying to get by and weather the storms of life. As Gordon Parker, a psychiatrist, says: “They often don’t want to die; it’s more that they want the pain to go away. So anyone that offers kindness or hope can help several people.”