Mike Ritter did not like needles.
Normally, this is something I would not know. We worked together. Sometimes we socialized together, but mostly our relationship was a beautiful, loving, sometimes frustrating, but always collaborative effort to get the GA Voice out every two weeks.
When we were in the ER and the doctors and nurses were trying to figure out what was causing his pain, they gave him a morphine drip and IV and took blood. He asked me to hold his hand and look into his eyes every time his arm was poked. He told me his father, a doctor, would line up him, his brother and five sisters every year and give them their flu shots. “I hated it,” he said. (Read his obituary by clicking here.)
My heart ached for him.
Late in the night, when he was finally in a room in the ER, a specialist came in to ask him some questions. I was standing at the end of the bed when the doctor asked him who I was. Mike said, “My boss.” I answered, “His friend.”
I never saw myself as Mike’s boss. He was the art director. I was the editor. He excelled at his craft and I would often ask for input on what I should do as part of mine. And he was always honest and encouraging. We, along with Patrick Saunders, our deputy editor, truly made a great team.
It takes a special temperament to be an art director. Anyone in this position is the last one to see the copy and then are tasked with immediately laying it out and making it all fit into the allotted space including selecting nice fonts and ways to make the photos fit for something that is pleasing to the eye.
Mike relished doing this work. He would take great pains to make a layout for a cover story in particular look dazzling, while also making sure it helped to tell the story included in the words. He particularly loved the chance to design artistic covers.
For our spring preview issue, his last cover, he used a photo of a blooming tree that he photographed near his apartment. He loved spring in Atlanta, he noted in his last Facebook post. That tree is also the cover photo for his Facebook page, now filled with accolades from hundreds of friends including a tribute from Pulitzer-prize winning cartoonist Steve Benson. He depicts Mike at a drawing board with perhaps his most famous cartoon drawn after Sept. 11.
When he saw our spring issue at our last staff meeting together—Chris Cash, Tim Boyd and Patrick—he absolutely glowed. The colors in all the images had turned out perfectly, he said. He noted he spent extra time ensuring the colors would transfer correctly. This was three days before he died.
This week’s issue is our wedding issue. Mike was passionate about the fight for marriage equality and, as an academic and activist, he read every single word of the Windsor decision and read every detailed opinion that came out after by judges who continue to rule in favor of our right to marry the person we love. Patrick and I would of course be happy we scored another victory in the courts, but Mike’s eyes lit up when he described the language used in the opinions, often emailing or reciting to us specific passages. Every opinion and ruling that comes out now in our favor won’t be the same without him.
Mike loved working at the GA Voice. I think all of us, past and present staff and those of us who also knew him from the old Southern Voice days where we also saw his expertise with cartoons and illustrations, can take peace in knowing this. He was doing work he loved with people who he loved and loved him. And he was doing it for a newspaper with a mission he believed in.
Mike was a true newspaper man. The outpouring of emotion that came when people learned he died was immediate and overwhelming. We knew Mike was a very talented cartoonist. It was tradition to gather around the desk of Bo Shell, our former art director, whenever Mike emailed the GA Voice his new cartoon back in the days when he was still drawing and we howl together at whomever was unfortunate to make it into his sights that week. And we were always blown away by his genius, technique, skill. All of it.
While Mike touched so many lives and gained the respect of so many newspaper people here in Georgia, it came as a wonderful surprise to see how many more he touched across the country. Mike never boasted about his numerous accomplishments as a nationally syndicated cartoonist when he lived in Arizona. He was humble and perhaps humbled, focused on doing his best in Georgia.
Oh, Mike. I’m glad you considered me your boss, but more importantly, I was your friend.
Mike’s family asks donations be made to The John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health/ John Ritter Research Program in Aortic and Vascular Diseases (www.johnritterfoundation.org) or Freedom to Marry (www.freedomtomarry.org), the campaign to win marriage equality nationwide.