Mike Ritter was known for many things: thought-provoking editorial cartoons, witty comics and creative caricatures. But to his friends, he was most known for his opinionated, yet compassionate demeanor.
Ritter died shortly after midnight March 30 after being admitted into the emergency room at the Atlanta Medical Center on March 28. Doctors determined he had a tear in his aorta and he underwent open-heart surgery, but Ritter died because of his condition and complications of the surgery. He was 48.
Ritter was from Washington but attended ASU and worked as the editorial cartoonist at The State Press. During his time at the newspaper, he was awarded 10 Gold Circle Awards from Columbia University’s Scholastic Press Association, as well as two first-place awards in the comic strip and editorial cartoon categories.
Zach Kucera, who is now an ordained minister in the congregationalist church, used to be the opinion page editor at The State Press and shared an office with Ritter.
He said their desks’ close proximity, as well as Ritter’s open nature, allowed them to become fast friends.
“After a couple of months, our desks were literally 5 feet apart, and we started talking, and eventually, we could talk about anything,” Kucera said. “We often had passionate debates about issues, but he was generally liked by everyone. In fact, I don’t know of anyone who didn't like him.”
Kucera said one of Ritter’s greatest traits was his view on life and other people.
“He always was able to find a comedic aspect to whatever was going on, (and) he was very compassionate,” he said.
This compassion shone through in all Ritter’s actions, but especially when he could tell someone needed a friend, Kucera said.
“I remember that I was going through a really tough time at ASU,” he said. “I had been struggling with depression at the time, and I knew he was very concerned about that. One day at work, out of nowhere, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I know you're going through a tough time, but if you need someone to talk to, just pull me aside and I’ll be here.' … It was so nice to have that connection where someone kind of reached out to me.”
Theodore “TJ” Sokol used to be The State Press’s photo editor, and is now director of information technology services at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
He also worked with Ritter during college and said although the two weren’t the closest of friends, he greatly looked up to Ritter.
“There was no time I saw him be on the wrong end of a conversation, and I think that was one of his most endearing qualities,” Sokol said. “Everyone was equal in his eyes. I hadn't seen him in years, but it’s funny, if I saw him today we’d probably still catch up.”
He said Ritter was able to make a lasting impression that spanned time and distance, making him feel connected to him long after they both had graduated.
“Just to watch my wife’s reaction when we found out that he died, she was so upset, even though we hadn't had contact with him,” Sokol said. “He was just that kind of guy. You didn't always have to have contact with him to feel connected to him.”
Sokol’s wife also worked for The State Press in college, and they received two drawings from Ritter as engagement and wedding presents. One was a caricature of the couple in front of the Disney castle because Sokol proposed to his wife at Disney World in Florida.
Sokol said it’s still hanging on the wall of his house.
“It was always an honor to get drawn by Mike,” he said.
After graduating from ASU, Ritter went on to work as an editorial cartoonist for The East Valley Tribune, where he was one of the first openly gay staff cartoonists at any mainstream newspaper. He was awarded many honors, including a Freedom of Information Award from the Arizona Newspaper Association and the Thomson newspaper chain’s highest award for illustration in 1999. He was also the president of Association of American Editorial Cartoonists from 2003-04.
He later moved to Atlanta, where he worked as a cartoonist for the GA Voice and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and he received yet more honors, including third place for Best Original Editorial Cartoon in the National Newspaper Association’s Better Newspaper contest.
Despite all this grandeur, those who knew Ritter still speak not of his awards, but of his skill as an artist and his value as a friend.
Greg Archer, formerly Greg Krzos while he was an opinion editor at The State Press, is now an author and journalist in the San Francisco Bay area.
He said Ritter’s life reflected his career, with colorfulness and a commitment to finding rightness through political discussions and debates.
“He kind of lived life very vibrantly and very artistically, sometimes whimsically like his cartoons,” he said.
Archer said the true reason behind Ritter’s success as a cartoonist was the care he took with each drawing, so that each had meaning and substance.
“People in the world are able to capture a message, and in a way, that makes an impact or pushes the envelope and provokes thought,” he said. “There are few people in the world who are able to do that, especially in such a brilliant way that Mike could. If you look back at the canon of his work, almost every one does that and that’s really rare.”
Archer said the world has experienced a great loss with Ritter’s death, and he knows he will be missed by many for the light he provided.
“I think the legacy he leaves behind is both illuminating and wonderfully humorous and just perfectly crafted in a way that few others are able to match,” he said. “He was my best friend for a time, and that was really special and rare, and I’m really grateful that we were in each other’s lives. I’m sure he's giving heaven a laugh, wherever he is.”
Mike Ritter is survived by his brother, five sisters and parents.
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