Australian Don Ritchie was a decorated hero, but his heroics were of a very unusual variety.
He lived directly across from a famous attraction, a sheer cliff at the mouth of Sydney Harbor called “The Gap.” A popular tourist spot, the cliff is unfortunately somewhat more famous for the hundreds of suicides — roughly one per week – that have taken place there since the mid-1800’s. Over the years, the city has done what it could to prevent or at least discourage jumpers, but with only limited success. One effort was more successful at preventing the suicides than all the other measures put together.
In 2009, Mr. Ritchie was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for asking people in to tea. You read that right. The former Second World War Naval veteran and retired insurance salesman would keep an eye out for lone visitors to the cliff. When he spotted one, he would get them talking. Not about anything serious, not about religion or their feelings, not about their families or their health or their love lives. Not at first. He just made pleasant small talk and invited them in for a cuppa. In this quiet, mild-mannered way, this kind man prevented an estimated 164 people from killing themselves. Quite a few of those people came back to thank him years later, and it’s one of those survivors who gave him the nickname that stuck, “The Angel of the Gap.”
“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 realize 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.” The Independent
When he was interviewed by Gawker in 2010, Ritchie was already suffering from the cancer that would kill him two years later. Asked what he thought would happen at the Gap when he was no longer able to make the trek, this modest, self-effacing man responded, “I imagine somebody else will come along and do what I’ve been doing.” I sure hope he’s right.