In those bleak moments when the lost souls stood atop the cliff, wondering whether to jump, the sound of the wind and the waves was broken by a soft voice.
“Why don’t you come and have a cup of tea?’’ the stranger would ask.
For 50 years, Don Ritchie lived across the street from Australia’s most notorious suicide spot, a cliff at the entrance to Sydney Harbour called The Gap. And in that time, he shepherded countless people away from the edge.
What some consider grim, Ritchie considered a gift. How wonderful, the former life insurance salesman said, to save so many. How wonderful to sell them life.
“You can’t just sit there and watch them,’’ said Ritchie, who died at age 85 in 2012. “You gotta try and save them.”
As people across the globe observe World Mental Health Day on October 10, it’s worth remembering a man former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described as “a true hero, one of our greatest Australians”.
Ritchie saved 500 people, according to the official tally, but that’s only an estimate. Each morning he scanned the cliff. If he spotted anyone standing alone too close to the precipice, he hurried to their side.
It all nearly cost him his life once. Decades before his death, Ritchie struggled with a woman, centimetres from the edge.
The woman tried to launch herself over the side, with Ritchie the only thing between her and the abyss. Had she been successful, he would have gone over, too.
Later in life, he kept a safer distance, but he remained available to lend an ear, though he never tried to counsel, advise or pry. He just asked if they’d like to talk and invited them back to his house for tea. Sometimes, they joined him.
“I’m offering them an alternative, really,’’ Ritchie said. A smile cannot, of course, save everyone; the motivations behind suicide are too varied. But simple kindness can be surprisingly effective.
In 2006, the Government recognised Ritchie’s efforts with a Medal of the Order of Australia. He hung it on his living room wall above a painting of a sunshine someone left in his mailbox. On it is a message calling Ritchie “an angel that walks among us’’.
In 2011 he was named a Local Hero at the Australian of the Year awards.
“Upon accepting the award Mr Ritchie urged people to never be afraid to speak to those most in need,” former politician Kevin Humphries said.
“Always remember the power of the simple smile, a helping hand, a listening ear and a kind word.”