Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

October 31, 2013

In mourning

A time of grief and memories for an 'amazing person'

By Bill Kirk, Sonya Vartabedian, Dustin Luca and Judy Wakefield
Staff writers

---- — In countless ways big and small, Colleen Ritzer of Andover, a teacher in Danvers, was remembered over the past week by those who knew her and many more who didn’t but wish they had.

At a night field hockey game between Danvers and Andover last Friday, a pink sign on poster board was tacked to the outside of the concession stand: A ribbon drawn in black magic marker was underscored with the words “Ritzer Strong.”

At Fenway Park during the opening game of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals last Wednesday night, a moment of silence was held in Ritzer’s honor while the giant scoreboard flashed a smiling image of Ritzer, the name of her hometown, and the age she died: 24.

For people who knew her, the week following her murder allegedly at the hands of one of her 14-year-old math students at Danvers High School was filled with as much grief as unanswered questions.

Joe Spanos, a retired Andover High School teacher who taught Ritzer, said he cried when he heard the news.

“She was a great student,” he said, adding that she was in his TV production class, even working as a teaching assistant for a while. “She always wanted to be a teacher.”

Close friend Jennifer Berger, who graduated with Ritzer and kept in touch with her right up to the weekend before her death, tried to stress the positive.

“She was just an amazing person who loved life,” said Berger, who graduated with Ritzer. The two went to elementary and middle school together and hung out the weekend before her death, watching the Red Sox game on TV.

“She was so kind and caring,” Berger said. “She could find joy in the littlest things in life. If she was having a bad day, she would find a quote from a song that would turn it around. I just want people to know how amazing she was. ... She was my go-to best friend. I just can’t believe she is gone.”

Another group of friends, her college roommates, offered a different perspective of Ritzer.

One of them, Caroline Rufo, described their junior and senior year dorm room as “such an uplifting place to live.”

“Our room was decorated with inspirational quotes everywhere,” she said. “Colleen loved the holidays, and our rooms were always decorated with holiday decorations — no matter what.”

The girl who would dance to holiday music she continuously played also had nicknames for each girl, as well as a soft spot for yoga pants, according to Rufo.

“She loved yoga pants, and would always be like, ‘yoga pants are heaven on your legs,’” she said.

Even after the girls parted ways at commencement in 2011, celebration of the holidays continued on up to this year with Colleen Ritzer.

“She always had a way to reach out with holiday cards, letters when we lost contact,” Natalie Geeza said.

Because Ritzer held such a large place in their lives, Rufo stumbled over her words when describing what comes next.

“Extreme loss,” she said. “There’s going to be a void forever in our hearts. I don’t know that anything can refill that.”

Many, including Berger, spoke about how Ritzer had always wanted to become a teacher.

“In our fifth-grade yearbook, when it says what do you want to be when you grow up, she said ‘teacher,’” Berger remembered. “She loved her job — loved it.”

Ritzer’s Dascomb Road neighbor, Mary Duffy, recalled Ritzer’s inner and outer beauty.

“She was a quiet, unassuming girl with a beautiful smile,” she said. “She was a lovely child.”

Duffy said Ritzer was a reflection of her close-knit family.

“I love the family — they have a beautiful family,” Duffy said. “If every family throughout America was like that, there would be no trouble. It would be a utopia.”

Her students at Danvers High School were shocked and saddened by the popular teacher’s death. She’d only been there a year, but had already made a huge impact on the school.

Jenna Glazier, a 16-year-old junior and former student of Ritzer, remembered her as a generous, dedicated and helpful teacher who often told students, “Yay proofs!” in reference to a mathematical exercise that some begrudged.

“She was known for her positive energy,” said John Tibbetts, a 16-year-old junior.

“She just always had a huge smile on her face, and she was always willing to help everyone,” said Kelsey Brooks Jr., a 16-year-old junior.

“She loved teaching,” said Kara Behen, a 14-year-old freshman. “She was just ... amazing.”

Many people worldwide got a glimpse into Ritzer’s approach to life by reading quotes she put on Facebook or the Tweets she sent out to her students.

She maintained a Twitter account at @msritzermath, where she posted homework assignments and described herself as “a math teacher often too excited about the topics I’m teaching.”

She was known for encouraging and tutoring students, as evidenced by her posts to Twitter. A week ago, she wished sophomores and juniors luck on their PSATs. In early August, she wrote, “No matter what happens in life, be good to people. Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.”

Even the institutions she touched sent out heartfelt words of mourning at the passing of someone seen as a great student who was an inspiration to everyone.

Patricia Meservey, the president of Salem State University where Ritzer was a graduate student in counseling, called Ritzer a “bright and vibrant student. As a dedicated teacher, Colleen wanted to work with and help children with special needs. She believed children have much to offer and often do not realize how special they are as individuals. In her application to Salem State she said she was dedicated to ‘helping students in times of need.’”

The president of Assumption College in Worcester, which Ritzer graduated from magna cum laude in 2011, said she would be “missed by all those who knew her. The Assumption community will keep Colleen’s family members in its thoughts and prayers during this time of great sorrow and loss.”

Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett described Ritzer as a “very, very respected teacher,” calling her murder a “terrible tragedy.”

Her family issued a statement the day after the murder, brought out to members of the media, typed on a simple piece of white paper.

“At this time, we are mourning the tragic death of our amazing, beautiful daughter and sister,” it read. “Everyone that knew and loved Colleen knew of her passion for teaching and how she mentored each and every one of her students. We would like to ask everyone to respect our privacy at this most difficult time. Thank you all for your thoughts and prayers.”

The oldest of three children, her younger brother, Daniel, attends the University of Connecticut, while her younger sister, Laura, is a senior at Andover High School.

Ritzer loved watching her younger sister play ice hockey, going to as many games as she could.

“She loved her little sister and liked supporting Laura, so she would go to her games,” said her friend, Jennifer Berger.

Fr. Peter Gori, the pastor at St. Augustine Church on Essex Street, tried to console the family the day after the murder.

Parents Thomas and Peggie Ritzer reeled from the shock and sought answers, Gori said. He offered comfort and the knowledge that the community was there for them and grieving with them.

“There is no rule book for this sort of thing,” Gori said. “I let them know they were in our prayers and our compassion. If anything, what can make a terrible situation worse even is thinking you are alone in this. To be present for people suffering like this is a source of strength. ... It’s more important for them to be surrounded by love and caring that’s soothing for her parents and brother and sister.”

Gori said the Ritzer family has been active members of St. Augustine for three generations, starting with Ritzer’s grandparents, Anne Martellucci, who still lives in Andover, and her late husband, Paul. The Martelluccis raised five children in Andover.

The children all attended religious education classes at St. Augustine, with Laura Ritzer the last to make her confirmation last year.

In Colleen Ritzer’s 2007 Andover High School yearbook, Peggie and Thomas Ritzer posted this message next to a baby photo of their daughter: “You are our shining star, our first born. May your future bring you as much joy and happiness as you have brought us. Keep smiling.”

Ritzer’s parents said their oldest daughter put her entire self into her passion for teaching. And while Gori hesitated to speculate, he said her gift for helping others may have unknowingly led to tragedy.

“Anybody who puts themselves out to be helpful to people is identifiable, and it does bring with it a sort of vulnerability,” he said. “But you can’t really help someone without being vulnerable.”

Throughout the day following the murder, a stream of well-wishers went to their home, including several members of the field hockey team, many of whom play ice hockey with Laura.

Leigh Keefe, whose daughter plays on the field hockey team, said a group of players got together on Wednesday and made baked goods, which they then took over to the Ritzer’s home, where they were warmly received.

Friday night, during what was supposed to be the final field hockey game of the season, Andover hosted Danvers. While many thought the game was going to be called off, the Danvers coach insisted it go on.

She said she wanted her girls to be able to lean on each other in difficult times, the true definition of teamwork.

Danvers’ first-year head coach Jill McGinnity then took the microphone in the pressbox of Lovely Field and read a statement before the start of the game.

“Hello everybody,” she said over the loudspeaker, taking the microphone veteran Andover High School sports announcer Bill Drummond. “I’m going to try to do this without getting too emotional.”

Her voice cracked as she spoke about Ritzer, who taught many of the girls on the Danvers field hockey team. Ritzer’s brother, Dan, and sister, Laura, a senior at Andover High School, stood along with hundreds of other spectators in silence.

“This is a perfect setting to remember a sister, a daughter, a teacher and a friend,” McGinnity said, her voice echoing across the cold field. “Colleen had a huge and positive effect on everyone. Let’s pay her memory forward and live by her words: Be kind, smile and find the good in every day.”

Players from both teams stood in a circle at center field, holding pink balloons.

After asking for a moment of silence, McGinnity said, “Here’s to you, Miss Ritzer. You may release the balloons.”

The balloons rose into the darkness as most of the people there shed at least a few tears.

Several Danvers parents were touched by the ceremony.

“It was very classy for Andover to do that,” said John Papamechail, whose daughter, Nicole, is a senior who plays goalie. He said his daughter had Ritzer as her math teacher last year. When news of her death hit, he said his daughter was “devastated.”

Most of the kids didn’t want to go back to school last Friday, the first day classes resumed following Ritzer’s death Tuesday night. But, he said, Danvers High School handled things well.

“The principal has been unbelievable,” he said, referring to Susan Ambrozavitch. “Everything is from the heart.”

He said counselors at the school really helped the students cope with returning.

“My daughter is doing surprisingly well,” he said.

Another Danvers parent, Sean Birmingham, said it was a rough week for students and parents, but that the game, and the ceremony preceding it, were a great way to end it.

“Coming back to where she was born and where she went to high school, two communities coming together, what a great way to celebrate her life,” he said.

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Material from The Eagle-Tribune and The Salem News was used in this report.