ANDOVER — Hundreds of mourners from every corner of Colleen Ritzer’s life — from her preschool teacher to high school and college classmates to busloads of fellow teachers and her students from Danvers High School — filed into St. Augustine Church in downtown Andover yesterday to deliver an outpouring of love and sympathy to her anguished family.
Three hours after calling hours began for the 24-year-old math teacher from Andover who was murdered inside Danvers High School last week, allegedly by one of her students, a roaring convoy of police motorcycles led nine buses labeled “DANVERS PUBLIC SCHOOLS” through downtown Andover.
At 6:15 p.m., hundreds of students and teachers poured out of those buses and lined up on the sidewalk alongside the church to pay their final respects. The Danvers community sported pink ribbons over their hearts — a nod to Ritzer and her favorite color.
Throughout the day, those who knew Ritzer waited for more than an hour at times to say good-bye. Inside the church, they saw floral arrangements and slide shows that reflected the rich life of an active, always smiling daughter, friend, educator. Outside, there were more pink floral arrangements lining the steps up to the church.
For those sharing their thoughts about Ritzer outside the church, her smile was foremost in their minds.
“The smile could light up the room,” said Laura Fogarty, who was Ritzer’s preschool teacher from the age of 15 months to 5 years old. “She’d squeeze you and hug you. She would have a temper the exact same way.”
“She was full of everything,” Fogarty added. “Full of energy. Full of life.”
Caroline Rufo, Ritzer’s college roommate at Assumption, described the dorm room they shared their junior and senior years as “such an uplifting place to live.”
“Our room was decorated with inspirational quotes everywhere,” Rufo said. “There was always Christmas music playing and her dancing around.”
While mourners by the hundreds formed a line down Essex Street, a group of about a half-dozen teachers stood watch across the street. They didn’t know Ritzer but were touched by the impact she had on her students.
Two of them held signs that read “#TeacherStrong for Danvers.”
Adrienne Masiello, an English teacher at the Advanced Math and Science Academy in Marlborough, said none of them were going into the church. They were there for those who did.
“Today wasn’t really about going inside,” Masiello said. “We wanted to save that for her close friends, family that wanted to do that. We’re here as a form of support.”
The social media hashtag #TeacherStrong was intended to convey a sense of unity and strength amid the recent tragedies in public schools nationwide, according to Masiello.
“Given all these recent events — Nevada, Sandy Hook — schools are no longer the safest place you can imagine,” she said. “It’s just sending a message that no matter what, we’re going to continue to teach. We’re going to continue to provide a safe environment for our students.”
Ken Kwajewski, a retired West Middle School teacher in Andover who had Ritzer in his computer class more than a decade ago, said the #TeacherStrong message stood out as “a good show of support for fellow colleagues.”
“Like with police and fire, you form a bond with your fellow teachers,” he said.
When asked to describe Ritzer as a middle school student, Kwajewski, too, resorted to her smile.
“It’s what everybody says on TV — ‘one of the nicest girls. Her smile brightened your day,’” he said. “It sounds so cliche, but it’s true.”
Fogarty, who spent 14 years as a crime scene investigator for the State Police after leaving the teaching profession, said Ritzer’s death has “rocked me.”
“I’m no stranger to tragedy and evil, but this has rocked me to the core,” she said.
“And now someone won’t have her as a mother,” Bunny Monteiro, another one of Ritzer’s preschool teachers, added. “Someone won’t have her as a loving wife. Everyone loses.”
Holding out her cellphone, Fogarty flipped through photo after photo of her and Ritzer together over the last two decades.
She stopped on one, showing the two of them in wedding-style dresses. Colleen was 7, and they were both smiling.
“She was in my wedding,” Fogarty said. “She was my flower girl, and she loved every minute of it.”
A funeral Mass for Ritzer will be held today at St. Augustine Church, 43 Essex St., starting at 10 a.m. Danvers High School Principal Sue Ambrozavitch posted a statement last night stating that because of the number of people in attendance and the church’s limited seating capacity, students would likely listen to the service outside, with some teachers and staff members. Other teachers would be part of an honor guard requested by the family. Ambrozavitch said the Ritzer family was overwhelmed by the support of the Danvers community.