Donald Taylor RITCHIE OAM
( late of Vaucluse )
New South Wales Good Samaritan – Angel of The Gap
Awards: Medal of the Order of Australia ( OAM ) – granted 26 January 2006 For service to the community through programs to prevent suicide.
Citizens of the Year – 2010 – by Woollahra Council
Local Hero Award – 2011
Born: 9 June 1925
Died on: Sunday 13 May 2012 @ St Vincent’s Hospital
MEMORIAL date: Friday 18 March 2016 @ 1.30pm
MEMORIAL location: Naval Memorial Chapel at HMAS Watson, Watsons Bay
Buried at: ?
Memorial at: ?
KNOWN TO MANY LOCAL POLICE FOR HIS EFFORTS BUT NOT A POLICEMAN
Death of the Angel of The Gap: the man who saved the suicidal from themselves
For almost half a century, Don Ritchie would approach people contemplating suicide at the edge of The Gap, just 50 metres from his home in Watsons Bay, his palms facing up.
Mr Ritchie told his daughter Sue Ritchie Bereny he would smile and say: “Is there something I could do to help you?”
Don’s story touched the hearts of all Australians and challenged each of us to rethink what it means to be a good neighbour
“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,” said Ms Ritchie Bereny.
Mr Ritchie, sometimes known as the angel or watchman of The Gap, is acknowledged to have stopped about 160 people from jumping to their deaths.
He died at St Vincent’s Hospital on Sunday, surrounded by his wife Moya, 85, daughters Jan, Donna and Sue, and four grandchildren, who travelled from across Australia and from Indonesia to Sydney to see him. He was 85.
Mr Ritchie was born on June 9, 1926 in Vaucluse, and studied at Vaucluse Public School and Scots College.
When World War II broke out, he served in the Royal Australian Navy on HMAS Hobart, and was on the ship in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered in 1945.
From his 30s to his 60s, Mr Ritchie worked for a multinational firm and built up a significant career in the corporate world, Ms Ritchie Bereny said.
In 1964, the former life insurance salesman moved into a house on Old South Head Road across the road from Jacobs Ladder at the southern end of the Gap Park. It was his home till the end.
From that time, Mr Ritchie started to rescue suicidal strangers.
“Things were different way back then. It was before there were police rescue vans, before there were more sophisticated mechanisms like hotlines. In those days, he got a bravery medal for saving somebody at the cliff – he actually tackled somebody on the edge of the cliff,” Ms Ritchie Bereny said.
“He is famous for bringing people back to the house for tea or breakfast.”
In 2006 Mr Ritchie was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his rescues.
His actions touched so many hearts that, in 2010, he and his wife were named Woollahra Council’s citizens of the year.
Last year, he was given the Local Hero Award for Australia by the National Australia Day Council.
“In a situation where most would turn a blind eye, Don has taken action … With such simple actions Don has saved an extraordinary number of lives,” the National Australia Day Council said.
Today, Woollahra Council and the National Australia Day Council praised Mr Ritchie for his dedication.
“Don’s story touched the hearts of all Australians and challenged each of us to rethink what it means to be a good neighbour,” the acting chief executive of the National Australia Day Council, Tam Johnston, said in a statement.
“Don was a true gentleman with a smile that could light up the room.”
The mayor of Woollahra, Susan Wynne, called Mr Ritchie a great man whose “courage delivered small miracles”.
Mr Ritchie had joined mental health advisers and the federal Liberal member for Wentworth Malcolm Turnbull in supporting the funding of suicide prevention measures at The Gap.
Mr Turnbull also praised Mr Ritchie.
“His work lives on forever not just in the lives of those he saved but in his heroism and example of public service,” he said in a statement.
Ms Ritchie Bereny said her father was the best role model she could think of for her son.
“When the school that my grandson goes to asked me for input about what sort of child they might produce, I used him as a role model because there are lots of strong people in the world – but I think strength with compassion is what we should strive for.”
Last year, when he was involved in the launch to promote the Australian of the Year awards for 2012, he was asked to take one letter of the word Australia and pin to it a story that inspired him, Ms Ritchie Bereny said.
Mr Ritchie chose the story of Simpson and his donkey.
“I think that epitomises him. It’s about an everyday person who did an extraordinary thing for many people that saved lives, without any want of recognition.”
A service for Mr Ritchie will be held at the Naval Memorial Chapel at HMAS Watson, Watsons Bay at 1.30pm on Friday. There will be a celebration of his life after the service at the Rose Bay RSL.
❏ Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline 13 11 14; Mensline 1300 789 978; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.
Confront suicidal people, Local Hero says
Australia’s Local Hero Award winner has urged people not to be afraid to speak to someone they believe may be contemplating suicide.
Accepting his award, 84-year-old suicide prevention advocate Donald Ritchie said suicide needs to be taken seriously by the community.
“I ask each of you to consider how we can better support those contemplating suicide,” he said at the ceremony in Canberra.
“To my fellow Australians, never be afraid to speak to those who you feel are in need. Always remember the power of the simple smile, a helping hand, a listening ear and a kind word.”
Mr Ritchie has lived near The Gap, a known suicide spot in Sydney for many years.
He is credited with coaxing 160 people away from the cliff’s edge and from the brink of taking their lives there. His strategy: an offer of a cup of tea and chat back at his place.
The National Australia Day Council said Mr Ritchie’s tangible efforts to prevent suicide were “truly remarkable”.
“His kind words and invitations into his home in times of trouble have made an enormous difference,” the council said in a statement.
“With such simple actions, Don has saved an extraordinary number of lives.”
In the early days, he often struggled physically with those wanting to jump while his wife called the police. But now he takes a more hands-off approach.
He’s been recognised more than once for his efforts. He was given a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2006, while both him and his wife Moya were named Woollahra Council’s Citizens of the Year in 2010.
Mr Ritchie said his simple techniques preventing suicide at The Gap had worked “wonderfully well” down the years.
“I’ve been involved in many rescues, either talking people out of an immediate jump over the cliff, to ask them to come up to have a cup of tea with my wife and talk about it and see if we can help in any way,” he said.
“And that has worked wonderfully well.”
Tragedy amid the beauty at The Gap
Lucy, my wife, and I often walk with our dogs along the cliffs leading down to The Gap at South Head. It is one of the most beautiful spots in the electorate of Wentworth.
I can remember my mother walking with me down at The Gap and telling me of of the 1857 wreck of the Dunbar, which missed the entry into Sydney Harbour in a storm, and instead was smashed on the rocks below The Gap.
Only one of the 122 passengers and crew survived, James Johnson. I would imagine him bravely clinging to the rocks, the only survivor of a terrible storm. An anchor from the ship remains as a memorial.
But what we didn’t talk about, and what Australians still don’t talk about enough, is that much of the tragedy amid the beauty of those cliffs is very current. Indeed it could be happening as you are reading this article.
For well over a century, the cliffs of South Head have been a preferred place for people to commit suicide. It has been estimated about 50 people end their lives at The Gap every year. They come from all over Australia. Some of them are well-known, such as the newsreader Charmaine Dragun, but all of them are tragedies.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians under the age of 44. In 2007, 1881 suicides were registered in Australia, with a further 65,000 attempts recorded. Men make up 75 per cent of the registered deaths. And these figures are likely to be understated.
Tragically, research shows that the taboo surrounding suicide prevents many individuals from reaching out to family or their community when their support is most needed. Yet many of us suffer the result of this silence. The personal and social costs of suicide are immediate and far-reaching, affecting families, friends, workplaces and the broader community. Suicide ends the lives of thousands but devastates the lives of tens of thousands directly affected.
The stigma of suicide is steadily lifting, due largely to the hard work and research of organisations such as beyondblue, Lifeline and the Black Dog Institute.
At The Gap, Woollahra Council – supported by the Black Dog Institute and Lifeline and by the brave advocacy of Dianne Gaddin, whose daughter ended her life there – is seeking to put in place a Gap Master Plan. This involves special fencing (which is hard to get over but easy to get back), landscaping and on-site upgrades, lighting, signs, CCTV cameras and emergency support telephones.
These measures will help in de-stigmatising the location, and will help ensure that those contemplating suicide at The Gap are deterred long enough for somebody to reach them, talk to them and change their mind. These techniques have been proven in other cities to materially reduce and deter suicide attempts. In short, they save lives.
Since late 2008, I have been been supporting Woollahra Council in the so far unsuccessful efforts to secure additional funding of just over $2 million from the federal government to ensure there is a thorough and comprehensive suicide prevention system at The Gap. The council has allocated $500,000 but much more needs to be done to complete the project and the council needs help. This is a life-saving project.
Local residents play an important role. The council hosted a very successful community workshop last year with the Black Dog Institute to raise awareness and build skills on managing depression and improving mental health. It was booked out.
One man, Donald Ritchie, who has lived opposite The Gap for nearly 50 years, has shown what can be done when you have the chance to intervene. He and his wife have talked many back from the brink, with a few kind words and the offer of a cup of tea. Honoured with an Order of Australia, Ritchie has talked more than 160 people out of taking their lives.
We have to lift the taboo about acknowledging suicide as a major, preventable health problem. The Senate Community Affairs Committee inquiry into suicide has done great work in raising awareness.
Would there be any hesitation in spending a few million dollars to address a road black spot that had been taking 50 lives a year for decades? I hope not.
The Gap is not just an eastern suburbs issue, it is the hottest suicide spot in Australia. The evidence is clear and the federal government must act to ensure that we do everything we can to ensure that those who look over those cliffs with thoughts of death are given every encouragement, every chance, to think again and come back from the brink, come back to live.
Malcolm Turnbull is the Liberal member for Wentworth. Lifeline: 131 114.
An angel walking among us at The Gap
HE IS the watchman of The Gap. A former life insurance salesman who in 45 years has officially rescued about 160 people intent on jumping from the cliffs at Watsons Bay, mostly from Gap Park, opposite his home high on Old South Head Road. Unofficially, that figure is closer to 400.
Some, at his urging, quietly gathered their shoes and wallets, neatly laid out on the rocks, and followed him home for breakfast. Others, tragically, struggled as he grabbed at their clothes before they slipped over the edge.
Still others later sent tokens of thanks, a magnum of champagne or an anonymous drawing slipped into his letter box, labelling him ‘‘an angel walking among us’’.
Don Ritchie, 82, spends much of his time reading newspapers, books and scanning the glistening expanse of ocean laid out before him. His days of climbing fences are gone and he admits some relief that most visitors now carry mobile phones and are quick to contact the police if they see a lone figure standing too close to the edge, too deep in contemplation.
For its part, Woollahra Council has been campaigning for $2.5 million to install higher fences, motion-sensitive lights, emergency phones and closed-circuit television cameras, but Mr Ritchie is ambivalent.
‘‘People will always come here. I don’t think it will ever stop,’’ he says, with a shrug.
Some deaths have been recorded in his diary, others are eternally etched in his mind.
One summer evening he spotted a young man perched on a thin ledge, beyond the fence.
‘‘I went over and I tried to talk to him, asking him questions about where he was from. He wouldn’t talk much, just kept looking straight ahead. I was talking to him for about half an hour … thinking I was making headway. I said ‘why don’t you come over for a cup of tea, or a
beer, if you’d like one?’ He said ‘no’ and stepped straight off the side … his hat blew up and I caught it in my hand.’’ Later, Mr Ritchie discovered the 19-year-old had grown up next door, playing with his grandchildren.
Years later, Mr Ritchie encouraged a ‘‘nervous and confused’’ woman, sitting on a ledge, shoes by her side, to follow him home. Over tea and toast, she revealed she was unhappy with medication she had been prescribed for depression. Mr Ritchie’s wife suggested she seek a second opinion. ‘‘A couple of months later she came up the path with a bottle of French champagne. We later got a Christmas card from her, and a postcard. It said ‘I’ll never forget your important intervention in my life. I am well’.’’
Despite his bravery and compassion, Mr Ritchie has steered clear of the limelight. He was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2006 for his services to suicide prevention but is all too aware that any publicity attracts more depressed and disturbed people.
In the weeks after the Channel 10 newsreader Charmaine Dragun jumped to her death outside his house in November 2007, Mr Ritchie’s wife is adamant six more followed.
‘‘But what do you do? Not talk about it?’’ he asks. ‘‘It’s the truth. It’s what goes on here.’’
It has long been a haunting dichotomy for rescuers, families and media. To speak out in a bid to have the area made safer, risking more people becoming aware of it, or to keep quiet, letting the deaths go on.
But for an anti-suicide campaigner, Dianne Gaddin, whose daughter Tracy jumped from The Gap in 2005, the answer is easy. If the issue is not aired, the problem will never be solved.
She has written four letters in the past month to the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, urging him to act. While her pleas go unanswered, her desperation balloons. She knows Mr Ritchie will not be standing guard forever.
‘‘Sometimes just a smile and a greeting is all it takes to change the mind of the would-be suicider. I don’t believe people want to die, but living is just too hard. To me, Don is a guardian angel.’’
Lifeline: 131 114; Salvo Crisis Line 93312000; Beyond Blue 1300224 636.