, Salem, MA

October 24, 2013

Young teacher found joy 'in the littlest things'

Friends at home remember Colleen Ritzer

By Bill Kirk
Staff Writer

---- — ANDOVER — Amazing, happy, great smile, devoted to her students.

These are just a few of the words and phrases friends and family members used to describe Colleen Ritzer, 24, of 5 Dascomb Road, Andover, who was killed Tuesday night in Danvers. Police have arrested 14-year-old Philip Chism, a student at Danvers High School, where Ritzer taught math, and charged him with first-degree murder.

“She was just an amazing person who loved life,” said Jennifer Berger, who graduated with Ritzer in 2007 from Andover High School. The two went to Sanborn Elementary and West Middle School together, as well. They hung out together Saturday night watching the Red Sox 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,” Berger said before bursting into tears.

Others recalled Ritzer as someone with a great personality who always made them smile.

Dan Yanofsky, who also graduated in the Class of 2007, said he met Ritzer in a TV production class taught by retired high school teacher Joe Spanos.

“I never saw her with anything but a smile on her face,” Yanofsky said, “and she had a positive attitude about everything. She cared more about her family and friends than anything else.”

He said he couldn’t believe the news yesterday.

“My first reaction was just how unfair it was for her to go this way,” he said. “This shouldn’t happen to anyone, but it feels even more cruel when I know just how kind and happy she was. When they said her name on the news, I felt sick to my stomach.”

Lindsay Schoen, who graduated from both Andover High and Assumption College but was a year ahead of Ritzer, said that while they weren’t close, they were always friendly.

“The one thing you always noticed about Colleen was her smile,” Schoen said. “It was one of the biggest smiles you’ll ever see.”

Ritzer was a “great math student,” she said. “I had her in a few math classes at Assumption, and she was a great student. ... She really was one of the sweetest people I ever met.”

As cars streamed up to the house at the corner of Dascomb and Blood roads, family members were mostly tight-lipped about the murder.

But an uncle, Dale Webster, brought a statement out to reporters that was typed on a white piece of 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.”

Assumption College President Francesco Cesareo also issued a statement, saying that Ritzer graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a minor in psychology with a concentration in secondary education.

“Colleen will be missed by all those who knew her,” he said. “The Assumption community will keep Colleen’s family members in its thoughts and prayers during this time of great sorrow and loss.”

Yanofsky said he wasn’t surprised that Ritzer became a teacher.

“I do remember her talking about it in high school,” he said. “I knew that she would be great for the job, because of her attitude toward people. I knew that students of any age would respond to her bubbly demeanor.”

Berger agreed, saying 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.”

An ice-hockey nut who never played the sport, Ritzer especially enjoyed watching her younger sister, Laura, a student at Andover High, play hockey.

“She loved her little sister and liked supporting Laura, so she would go to her games,” Berger said. “She was that type. So caring.”

Ritzer also has a younger brother, Daniel, who graduated from Andover High in 2011 and now goes to the University of Connecticut.

Berger said when the two friends were away from each other at college — Berger at Bentley and Ritzer at Assumption — Ritzer would send her regular notes.

“There were no holidays or birthdays needed,” she said. “They were random and basically said, ‘I miss you and can’t wait to hang out with you again.’ Simple little things like that.”

Berger knew something was wrong when Ritzer’s parents called her Tuesday night.

“Her mother called us to see if I knew where she was because she hadn’t been home,” she said.

Yesterday morning, Ritzer’s parents delivered the devastating news.

“I didn’t think it was real,” she said. “Things like this shouldn’t happen to good people like her.”

Berger said she felt the worst for Ritzer’s family.

“Her parents are the most amazing people,” she said. “... They do not deserve any of this.”

Mary Duffy of 7 Dascomb Road, who has been neighbors of the Ritzers for the last 24 or 25 years, said they are a great family.

“I love the family,” she said. “They have a beautiful family. If every family throughout America was like that, there would be no trouble. It would be a Utopia.”

She described Colleen as “pleasant and happy. ... She was not rowdy. She was funny, and she was focused on what was going on.”

Asked if the news surprised her, she said, “In this day and age, this isn’t that surprising. It is shocking because I knew her, and I’m devastated by the loss.”

Staff reporters Judy Wakefield, Dustin Luca, Alex Lippa and Bill Burt contributed to this story.