“You were born with the ability to change someone’s life—don’t ever waste it.” -Dale Partridge
Until recently, I had never heard of Don Ritchie, and chances are you haven’t either—he was one of this planet’s many quiet heroes, not fabulously wealthy and quietly spoken. If you had passed Don on the street, you likely wouldn’t have given him a second glance, let alone guess that he had saved hundreds of human lives.
Mr Ritchie’s early life followed the same course as that of many young men in his generation. Born on June 9, 1926 in Vaucluse, Australia, he studied at Scots College before going to serve his country in World War II. Joining up with the Royal Australian Navy, he served dutifully until 1945, where after he returned home to become a successful businessman.
Birth of a hero
But where Don’s story really gets started is when he moved into a house on Old South Head Road near Jacobs Ladder at the southern end of the Gap Park—so named for the dramatic cliff face there which drops abruptly downward to the sea. It was a place of tragic beauty, frequented not only by tourists, but also by those who wanted to take their own lives. Making matters worse, in those days, there were no police rescue vans, no sophisticated mechanisms like suicide hotlines, no cellular phones; there was only the silence of the sea and the sky. Don stepped in to fill that silence.
Walking towards suicidal individuals standing by the ledge with his palms facing up, Don would smile his friendly everyman smile and ask simply, “Is there something I could do to help you?” According to his wife, Ms. Ritchie Bereny, “That was all that was often needed to turn people around, and he would say not to underestimate the power of a kind word and a smile.”
With just a single caring conversation, Don would get people away from the ledge, usually taking them back to his home for tea and breakfast. From there, they went on to live the rest of their lives, restored by the man who was everyone’s friend.
A Lasting Legacy
Sadly, Don has now left us, passing away peacefully and surrounded by his loved ones at the ripe old age of 85. His legacy of compassionate curiosity, however, lives on—both through the many lives he saved and through the wave of inspiration which has been picked up by people like me, and hopefully by people like you, too. Don’s story is proof positive that really making a difference in this world doesn’t require an enormous amount of time, money, or even work; all it takes is a willingness to stay open, to maintain an interest in our fellow human beings, and to reach out in any way we can.
So, open your eyes, and look around you: There is likely a situation close by—even if it’s not as dramatic or obvious as a cliff face—where a kind word or small gesture from you might be used to make a big difference.
Kamal Sarma is the Chair of RUOK Conversations Think Tank and the CEO of Rezilium.
He has written 3 books including WinWin Conversations: The Art and Science of Human Connection