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Teacher has ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Moment

At a bone marrow drive in his honor, a retired Parkland English teacher hears how much he has meant to students.

I have probably seen the classic Frank Capra Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” 30 times in my life and each time – sentimental fool that I am – I cry at the end.

In it, the hero George Bailey gets the chance to see what life in the little town of Bedford Falls would have been like if he’d never been born.  At the end – spoiler alert, but shame on you if you haven’t seen the film yet – he has a crisis and the many people he has helped during his life come to his rescue.  

Retired Parkland High School English teacher John Ritter got to walk in George Bailey’s shoes a bit Saturday when numerous former students and colleagues turned out to volunteer and register to donate at a in his honor. By day’s end, the Parkland Education Association had registered 230 potential donors.

Ritter, who has a rare form of leukemia, was at the drive wearing a surgical mask to protect him from the germs that come with contact. Former students from as long ago as the 1980s visited with him and told him that so many of the things he’d said in class had stuck with them. It was moving, he said, to realize “things you might have done 30 years ago mattered.”

Christine Gieringer of Schnecksville stopped to see Ritter even though she can’t join the bone marrow registry because she’s fighting cancer herself. About 20 years ago, she’d attended an after-school creative writing program that he ran at Parkland High and remembered him as one of her very favorite teachers.

High School English teacher Candace Brobst said she wouldn’t be a teacher if Ritter hadn’t mentored her through the rough parts early in her career.

Kerin Steigerwalt, a Parkland English teacher who had Ritter when she was a student, told me he was one of the most influential people in her life, pushing her to think critically, to love classic literature and improve her writing.

Other former students reminded Ritter of what a tough grader he could be. Ritter recalled that one told him: “You gave me a D- on your term paper; there was so much red ink." But they were also very forgiving. 

Ritter’s adult sons, Seth, Mike and Zacchary, attended the drive and got to hear stories about their dad.

Seth said his father relishes talking to people from all walks of life and they respond in kind. “He really seems to be able to connect with anyone,” Seth said.

Zacc recalled having run-ins with his father when he was the last child left at home after his brothers went to college. Zacc explained that he wasn’t a morning person while his dad was “fully caffeinated by 5 [a.m.].”

Yet now Zacc looks back and thinks: “He turned out to be right most of the time.”

What parent wouldn’t treasure that discovery?

It is unlikely that a match will be found in time for Ritter, so he sees each day as a gift. Recently, he wrote this: 

“Faced with mortality, my bucket list is pretty mundane. In the immediate future I hope to enjoy another sunset, moonlit night, and sunrise. I hope to have another day to hold hands with my wife and cuddle in bed. Our bluebirds have returned to their nesting box; I hope to see them raise a successful clutch. I hope to be well enough to pick raspberries and huckleberries this summer. I hope to enjoy another summer, fall, winter and, even, spring.”

Near the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey’s bumbling guardian angel Clarence tells George: “Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives.”

The only thing we get to choose is how.

Tim Killimaji May 24, 2012 at 09:52 PM
sadly when a match is found the "donor" backs out when the realization that it is a massive medical procedure. Would love to see a follow up in a year of how many people actually are called upon to donate
Mike Ritter June 06, 2012 at 03:16 AM
Hi Tim, This is Mike Ritter, John's son. I'd like to straighten out your misinformed comment and request. At the drive, the two ways of donation are clearly explained. One is Peripheral Blood Stem Cell Donation where after 4 days of injections of filgrastim (flu-like symptoms can result) to increase stem cells in the blood, you are hooked up to a machine for a few hours (like dialysis). The other donation method is a surgical procedure where marrow is drawn from the pelvic bone by a special syringe. There is roughly a week recovery to full mobility after this outpatient procedure. When asked to donate this way, it means you are donating to a child who needs the young cells straight from your marrow. With human life on the line, these are not "massive medical procedures." We clearly explain the two methods and the fact that you may end up donating to anyone at the drive, so the donor knows what they are signing up for and they do not back out as you describe. People can be in the registry from age 18-55 and less than 1% are ever called on to donate. Your request to see how many of the 230 people are called on to donate within one year's time shows how ignorant you are. I write this to correct you and to make sure you don't lead anyone astray in your false statements. While I'm sure there is a story (true or not) of a donor backing out somewhere, I will contend they are few and far between. Sincerely -- Mike Ritter
Ariel Quier June 07, 2012 at 07:54 PM
Hi, my name is Ariel Quier (a former student of Mr. Ritter's). Unfortunately I missed this drive, I was wondering if there was any way I could still see if I am a possible match? It would be great if anyone could give me more information on this because I would really love to do this. Although I only had the pleasure of having Mr. Ritter as a teacher for half a year before when he went on leave, he has been a huge inspiration in my life and it would be so great if I could possibly give back. Thanks and best wishes to him and his family! -Ariel :)
Mike Ritter June 11, 2012 at 12:02 PM
Hi Ariel, This is Mike, John's son. Thank you so much for your eagerness to help. If you go to http://www.dkmsamericas.org/ and the "register now" tab, you will get a kit to swab and get entered in the database. The odds for people in the registry of donating at some point are 1%. But, each new donor brings better odds that people who need marrow will be able to find it. Please be in touch with any questions you may have and thanks again -- Mike
Mrs. B June 12, 2012 at 07:16 PM
Incredible story!!! I was an Emmaus student, but my husband was one of Mr. Ritter's class of '04 students. Its always sooooo nice to hear about the good people do. We all too often hear the bad. What a great change, great column, great people, and great man :-) Just reading this article makes me want to donate, but I suffer many health ailments and would not be able to donate. When my husband returns from work, I will be asking him if he would like to donate though (but it would not be until later in summer when he has vacation time from work for recovery). Amazing story.... so nice to see a community come together for fellow neighbor, especially one who has already touched so many lives!!!!!

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