Little did he know what a noble purpose awaited him when Don Ritchie,
a former Navy seaman and retired salesman, settled into a house on Old
South Head Road back in 1964. Along with his wife, Don was eager to soak
in the stunning view of The Gap, an ocean cliff at Watsons Bay in
But just as the vista attracts tourists from
across the globe, it also lures desperate souls looking to end their
lives with a jump, claiming an average of 50 suicides a year.
first time Don spotted someone on the ledge — a mere 50 yards away,
visible through his living-room window — there was no question whether
he would intervene.
He would do so again and again for half a
century. He would quietly approach the cliff, palms facing up, and
gently ask, “Is there something I could do to help you?”
Some laid their shoes and wallets on the rocks, poised to leap. Others left farewell letters.
offered them tea, a personal invitation for breakfast in his home
across the street. He physically removed some people from the cliff,
once lying on his stomach to reach out. But it was his smile that coaxed
them, his listening ear.
Most of the time it worked. Officials say he spared some 150 lives. His family believes the number could be 500.
morning Don looked out his bedroom window and saw a woman sitting on
the cliff’s edge. “I quickly got dressed and went over,” he told the
Associated Press. “She had already put her handbag and shoes outside the
fence, which is pretty common. I said to her, ‘Why don’t you come over
and have a cup of tea?’” She obliged. A few months later, she returned
with a bottle of French champagne.
The thank-you gifts poured in
unexpectedly, sometimes a decade later. Christmas cards. Letters. A
painting of an angel and brilliant sunrays with the message, “An angel
who walks among us.”
Indeed, Don came to be known as the “Angel of
The Gap,” but he shrugged off the praise. Patrolling The Gap was his
duty, a matter of fact, and he considered himself the beneficiary. “I’m
85 and even at my age, it has broadened my horizons with all the
wonderful people I have met,” he once told a reporter. “It’s important
for troubled people to know that there are complete strangers out there
like myself who are willing and able to help them get through that dark
time and come out on the other side.”
From his time in the Navy
during World War II to his years selling scales and bacon cutters, he
had “learned to talk to all different people about all sorts of things,”
his youngest daughter said after his death in 2012 at age 86.
also recognized his training for the cliff-side ministry, saying, “I
was a salesman for most of my life, and I sold them life.”
He could draw them in and calm them down. He listened without judgment, his eyes that matched the sea piercing through bifocals.
lives on today, reminding us of our Christian call to prop up neighbors
in need. We never know who is struggling, slogging through a long
winter, desperate for Easter. A text or an Instagram “like” might lend
cheer, but sometimes our physical presence is the only way. We must walk
up to the gap, palms up, and ask, “Is there something I could do to
Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn.