Vision. Ability. Drive. When certain people discover their passions in life, they find ways to make them more accessible to others.
Years ago, Don Ritter ’81, H’18 was introduced to music therapy by dear friend and fellow musician, John Catt. Catt worked with an organization called Blue Star Connection, a nonprofit that supports the work of music therapists by purchasing musical instruments to donate to children’s hospitals and other care facilities. The allied health field uses music interventions during therapeutic treatment for a patient’s physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs, and these types of therapists are typically placed in hospitals, nursing and rehabilitation facilities, hospice care and schools.
Knowing Blue Star relied heavily on donations to purchase new instruments so each ailing child could use one exclusively, Ritter and his wife, Leslie Straub Ritter ’85, H’18, decided to donate the profits from a custom amplifier company— Category 5 Amplification — to the charity.
“We lived with a ‘music heals’ banner, and trudged on from there,” Don says. “It turns out that with Blue Star Connections we have given instruments to over 55 hospitals across the U.S. and a couple of international hospitals. We essentially just gave them what they needed. There was no grant writing process, nothing like that. You would basically just send us an email with a list of things you need, and within two or three weeks, we would send it to you.”
The impact Blue Star has had on children undergoing treatments for cancer or working through trauma continues to be tremendous: immunocompromised children in treatment receive instruments they can keep in their hospital room so they don’t risk contamination; children needing to work on their fine motor skills have a variety of instruments from which to choose; children who have lost their parents to drug addiction have an instrument to help play out their fears and aggression. And Blue Star has been able to make those life-changing connections because the Ritters made the commitment to help fund the charity with Category 5 profits.
Anyone who has stayed connected with Marietta College over the past five years knows that the Ritters’ impact on the music therapy field doesn’t stop with Cat 5 and Blue Star.
Don, who is the owner and CEO of Endurance Resources, had served on Marietta College’s Board of Trustees and knew during the mid-2010s that the College was struggling with enrollment numbers and had an imbalanced ratio of male-to-female students. Leslie, a current Trustee, is a Vice President and Principal for Square Knot, LLC. The couple, who met as alumni during a Homecoming Weekend, reminisce about the bustling Marietta College campus when they were undergraduate students.
Don’s love of music began when he started playing guitar as a high school student at Newport Catholic in Northern Kentucky. As a Petroleum Engineering student at Marietta, he and some of his Lambda Chi Alpha brothers had a band. The live music scene at Marietta during the early 1980s was impressive — he worked security when The Police and The Ramones played on campus in 1980 — and so was Greek life, with about 40 percent of the student body belonging to one of the many fraternities or sororities. For the past 21 years, Don and about 50 Lambda Chis meet in Wheeling, West Virginia, for a weekend to spend time together and play music. Leslie came to Marietta from the outskirts of Pittsburgh to study Industrial Engineering Management and to play tennis. She connected with the Sigma Kappa sorority and, like Don, has kept a steady connection to her Greek life friends.
The Ritters wanted to see their alma mater return to that level of vibrancy — strong, balanced enrollment numbers, an actively engaged campus and, of course, live music.
At an annual blues festival in Colorado, Catt introduced Don to a talented young blues guitarist who was then a freshman in high school. She planned to skip college and tour Europe with her sisters. By her junior year, Sadie Johnson had gotten to know the Ritters — and the Ritters had formulated a plan to help Sadie and other musicians keep pursuing their love of music, as well as help others with their musical talents. They were determined to start a music therapy program at Marietta College.
“Having worked in the music industry with a couple other ventures I’ve had, I’ve seen musicians that they live from gig to gig and sometimes they are very successful and other times they are not, and a lot of them did not have a Plan B,” Don says. “Music Therapy looked like something that could help a lot of musicians have a solid base.”
With the majority of music therapists being women and the average salary for this in-demand profession being about $50,000 per year, the program would a solid endeavor for musicians wanting to diversify their professional options.
Around Christmas 2016, Don and Leslie made calls to Sadie and Marshall Kimball, then Chair of the Music Department, to let them know that he was donating $1 million to establish a Music Therapy Program at Marietta, and also funding the renovation of The Gathering Place and the Band Rehearsal Hall. The caveat for the College was that the renovations to McKinney Hall, the Gathering Place and the Band Rehearsal Hall would need to be completed by the following October.
“That’s a little more of Ritter’s drive,” Leslie says. “We have to give a kudos to Fred Smith, who just retired (as Director of Physical Plant). Don really pushed Fred and his team in getting some of the things done. We knew the sooner we could get it, that we could start getting students in the door.”
The deadline was made and the program is accredited through the American Music Therapy Association. In spring 2021, Sadie, Lauren Eakle and Hannah Miller became the first three students to earn a Bachelor of Music in Music Therapy, and all three landed summer internships to finish off the program requirements.
“The other piece that I wanted to leave was a love of live music,” Don says. “That’s what The Gathering Place (renovation) is about. Putting the stage, the sound system and also the first- class recording studio was to really have a place where you can make music. Interesting, the Lambda Chi meeting that we have every year is called ‘The Gathering.’ When we saw The Gathering Place, I was also able to get a few of my fraternity brothers to help out with that project. We’d like to add a green room on that venue to make it a top-notch venue for artists but we will get there.”
By creating spaces for students to learn, practice, perform and record their music, the Ritters believe the College can attract non-Music majors who love music to enroll and have a rewarding experience at Marietta. To them, the College offers a dynamic place for young people to mature, create lifelong friendships, build skills and feel connected to a common history.
“I don’t know what it is about Marietta College — but you can’t verbalize it — there is just something truly special about the place,” Leslie says, adding that everyone in the campus community seems accessible and welcoming. “We talk about the transformational experience a Marietta education provides. We meet them wherever they are and help them transform and Pioneer in whatever path they choose.”