After completing his service in the Australian Navy during World War II, Don Ritchie became a life insurance salesman. But his far greater accomplishment was quite literally “selling life” to the dozens of distraught Sydneysiders who have attempted suicide at The Gap.
The Gap is a gorgeous cliffside in the affluent Sydney suburb of Watsons Bay which separates Sydney Harbour from the Tasman Sea. It has been a notorious suicide spot for nearly two centuries, with only a three-foot fence separating one from the edge.
And Don Ritchie lived next to it for 50 years.
According to estimates, Ritchie — the so-called “Angel of The Gap” — has saved 160 people from jumping to their deaths, all by being friendly and offering a warm smile. Frequently he just offered a cup of tea to them or invited them to chat at his home. While many would dread living to such a depressing place, Ritchie saw it as an amazing opportunity.
“How wonderful is it to save so many? How wonderful is it to sell them life?” he once said. “People will always come here. I don’t think it will ever stop. You can’t just sit there and watch them.”
“I think, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we live here and we can help people?'” his wife Moya added.
Ritchie didn’t keep count of how many people he actually saved, although the actual count could be close to 400. Sadly, many people eluded his grasp and plunged to their deaths regardless.
Some of the ones he spoke with were battling cancer, while others suffered from mental illness. Sometimes, the men and women who jumped left behind reminders of themselves on the edge — notes, wallets, shoes, etc. Once, Ritchie rushed over to help a man on crutches. By the time he arrived, the crutches were all that remained.
Ritchie admitted that he didn’t want to pry into would-be victims’ lives; rather simply being someone who could listen and offer an alternative if needed. He claimed that he didn’t try to dwell on the ones he could have saved, although there are still some that haunted him.
On a summer evening several years ago, a 19-year-old man had already climbed over the small fence at The Gap and was preparing to jump.
“I went over and I tried to talk to him, asking him questions…he wouldn’t talk much and 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 for a cup of tea, or a beer if you’d like one?’ He said no and stepped off…his hat blew up and I caught it in my hand.”
It was later discovered that the young man had lived down the street many years prior and grew up with Ritchie’s grandkids. The man’s mother brought Ritchie flowers and thanked him for trying. “If you couldn’t have talked him out of it, no one could,” she said.
Ritchie also once spoke with a woman who he described as “nervous and confused”; she had struggled with depression for years and felt that her medications were of no help. Ritchie and his wife spoke with her for several hours and she eventually went home safely. Months later, she returned with a message of thanks: “I’ll never forget your important intervention in my life. I am well.”
Ritchie consistently remained humble and low-key about his extraordinary work. In 2006, he was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to suicide prevention. However, he was acutely aware that excessive publicity could potentially attract more depressed people to The Gap.
The following year, on November 2, 2007, prominent Australian journalist/newscaster Charmaine Dragun jumped from The Gap after suffering from depression and anorexia for years. According to Ritchie’s wife, there were six more suicides in the following few weeks.
Therein lies the problem for many activists and would-be helpers: while The Gap’s security needs to be upgraded, how can that be done subtly without attracting more potential victims? There aren’t easy answers, but the local city councils are doing all they can to improve the situation.
As for Ritchie and his wife, they’ve always insisted that they’ve had successful, full lives. They raised three daughters and have a few grandchildren, and have traveled all around the world. One day, Ritchie found an anonymous gift in his mailbox — a painting of a ray of sunshine with a message at the bottom, calling him “an angel who walks amongst us.”
However, the humble Aussie was just glad to be of service to the community. “It makes you — oh, I don’t know. I feel happy about it. Once I’m gone, I imagine somebody else will come along and do what I’ve been doing.”
Suffering from recurring cancer, Ritchie passed away in 2012 at the age of 86.
“He would always say not to underestimate the power of a kind word and a smile….an everyday person who did an extraordinary thing for many people that saved their lives, without any want of recognition,” Ritchie’s daughter, Sue, told the Sydney Morning Herald.