Remembering Dr. Shirley Ritchie, an innovative educator

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 23, 2015

By Elizabeth Cook

Dr. Bob Knott once called her “a gracious bulldog.”

Dr. Martha West and countless others called her friend.

The passing last week of Dr. Shirley Ritchie, 84, a longtime educator and advocate for children, prompted stories about an innovative woman who was ahead of her time.

The “gracious bulldog” description from Knott, then president of Catawba College, was inspired by Ritchie’s determined push to get Smart Start funds for early childhood programs in Rowan County.

When the state program was slow to come here, Ritchie led the effort to build the Partners in Learning Child Development and Family Resource Center on Catawba College property and to form the Rowan Partnership for Children to implement the Smart Start program here when the money finally came through.

At the center’s dedication in 1996, directors and staff surprised her with a plaque dedicating the building to Ritchie, “one who has renewed our determination to serve and advocate on behalf of young children and their families.”

But Ritchie’s commitment to early childhood education goes back further.

As a young social worker after graduating from Catawba in 1952, she visited neighborhoods and homes that others might have avoided.

“I could see then the poverty,” she recalled many years later, “and the effects it has on children when they don’t get a good start in life and no one’s there to help the families.”

She was an elementary school counselor in Salisbury from 1965 to 1971, then worked as service coordinator of the Learning Center at Overton Elementary School.

She joined the faculty of UNC-Charlotte and taught in the College of Human Development and Learning from 1978 to 1981, when she returned to her alma mater.

West said she and Ritchie had known each other all their lives; their mothers were in college together. She knew Ritchie as a friend long before they became colleagues, but they shared an intense interest in education and served together in recent years on the Catawba College Board of Trustees.

“She was just a delightful person to be with,” West said. “She was fun — but always very creative and innovative.”

Phil Barton, chairman of the Smart Start of Rowan board, said Ritchie was the leading force in bringing the state program to the community. “She understood the significance of a really good early childhood education and good health and good nutrition and also strong family support,” Barton said.

A member of the Peeler and Ritchie families that own Cheerwine, she was blessed with opportunities and understood it was important to help others, he said. “It’s the kind of people they are.”

Barton said when he and Ritchie first got involved in Smart Start, Rowan may not have had a single five-star center. Now the majority of the 40-some early child education centers here are four- and five-star centers, he said, thanks to Smart Start and people like Ritchie.

Ritchie received the first Champion for Young Children Award given by Smart Start of Rowan, which afterwards was appropriately named for her, Barton said. “Between her and Martha West, those two have done more to promote early childhood education than anyone else,” he said.

Ritchie’s interest in education was total, he said. “She was just a real force in this community.”

West said the Learning Center which Ritchie led at Overton was modeled on British Infant Schools. A group of local educators visited England to see the concept first hand, including West, then the head of the teacher education program at Catawba College.

When West left Catawba to work for the school system, Ritchie joined the faculty as assistant professor of education

“Her interest in education was total,” West said. From advocating for early childhood education to training future teachers, Ritchie was interested in it all, and was “completely devoted to Catawba.”

Ritchie was talking about leaving no child behind back in the 1960s, well before the federal No Child Left Behind program came into being, fellow educators said.

Ritchie’s comments at the time sounded much like comments at the Rowan-Salisbury School System’s Literacy Summit  last week. “I more and more realized that children who come to school without the background they need are much less likely to succeed,” Ritchie said more than a decade ago.

West said she and Ritchie were part of a group of educators who went out to dinner together every other month; their last outing was in late September to Pinocchio’s in Spencer. “She hardly ever missed,” West said.

And Ritchie could be counted on to bring Cheerwine when she, West and two other friends got together each year for the first weekend of March Madness.

Ritchie was excited about attending the wedding of the first of her grandchildren to get married, Joy Ritchie, scheduled for next April, and the upcoming 100th anniversary of Cheerwine, West said.

“She was just very interested in her family and Catawba and Salisbury and everything around her,” West said. “She will be missed.”

Ritchie’s funeral is scheduled 2 p.m. today at St. John’s Lutheran Church.