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 bone marrow drive 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.