Don Ritchie was the kind of guy who could make me believe there really are angels walking the earth. When he died in May 2012, he left behind a legacy of hundreds of souls saved from suicide.
Some say he saved a about 160. Others say the true number was closer to 500. The exact number is less important than the kind heart this Australian showed to people in despair.
He and his wife lived above the cliffs of Sydney harbour. For nearly five decades they gloried in the vistas their windows opened to them. Sometimes they caught sight of someone standing above the cliffs, gazing out with a despair so palpable Ritchie knew they intended to fling themselves onto the rocks below.
In the early years of his rescue mission, he would restrain the person while his wife called the police. Over time, he cultivated a quieter approach. The report from Australian Broadcasting Corporation describes it:
[I’d say] ‘What are you doing there? Why don’t you come to our place across the road and have a cup of tea?’
Ritchie’s warmth and gentleness would defuse the situation. People would reconsider their decision to end their lives. They would pick up their burdens and carry them on.
Over time he earned the nickname, “Angel of the Gap”. When he was named “Australia’s Local Hero” in 2011, he said:
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. My ambition has always been to just get them away from the edge, to buy them time, to give them the opportunity to reflect and give them the chance to realise that things might look better the next morning. You just can’t sit there and watch them, you’ve got to try and save them.
When Ritchie died, he was surrounded by friends and family. Tributes flowed in from around Australia. And although they may not have been at his memorial service, dozens of survivors likely sent up a silent thanks to the man whose kindness gave them a chance to try again.