Little did he know what a noble purpose awaited him when Don Ritchie settled into a house on Old South Head Road back in 1964. The former Navy seaman and retired salesman was eager to soak in the stunning view with his wife: an ocean cliff at Watsons Bay in Eastern Sydney known as The Gap.
But just as the vista attracts tourists from across the globe, it also lures in desperate souls looking to end their lives with a jump, claiming an average of 50 suicides a year.
The 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 step in.
He would do so again and again for half a century: quietly approach the cliff, palms facing up, and gently ask, “Is there something I could do to help you?”
Some had laid their shoes and wallets on the rocks, poised to leap. Others had left farewell letters.
He 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.
One morning Don looked out his bedroom woman 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 2012 death at age 86.
Don also had 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.
Don 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 help you?”
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn.