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John Ritschard: ‘He loved the kids, and they loved him’

| Friday, September 16, 2016

If South Dining Hall was ever serving Carl’s chicken as the special, John Ritschard made sure the students knew.

1473990486-f37e10290916626Photo courtesy of I Am Notre Dame

He’d swipe their ID cards, give them a smile and tell a joke. Then he’d suggest a meal for them to try.

“He was a walking, talking menu,” his wife, Lila Ritschard, said.

John died Sunday afternoon at age 86. He had been diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare and aggressive skin cancer, in March 2015. But that didn’t stop him from coming to work in the dining hall for months after his diagnosis.

“He loved it. My husband loves young people,” Lila said. “He loves to tell jokes and riddles and tease. He enjoyed students coming in and out, getting to know them. We just loved being here.”

Lila started working as a day monitor in 2007. When John was hired in 2008, the two took the night shift — 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. — on Mondays through Thursdays.

Over the years, they became an integral part of the Notre Dame community.

“Notre Dame was the greatest support over all these years,” Lila said. “It just blows me away — the love that has been shown to us both here.”

Jack of all trades

John was born and raised in South Bend, Lila said, but didn’t have much to do with the University until he started working in the dining hall.

“He found his niche here,” she said.

After high school, John worked in the Studebaker plant for a couple years. He worked at Sears in Elkhart for more than 20 years as one of the top salespeople. After stints in the real estate industry and other odd jobs, he made his way to Notre Dame.

The pair — John and Lila — quickly became a staple at South Dining Hall. They almost never missed a day of work.

“We just were always together. We just enjoyed each other,” Lila said. “I don’t think we were ever off up until the last three years.”

John and Lila met in January 1999. She was working in a beauty shop at the time and a big blizzard had just struck the town. As she was cancelling the day’s appointment, in came John, traipsing over snow banks, to use his coupon for a free haircut.

“Everybody used to call me the coupon bride,” she said. “I said, ‘Yes, he came in for a free haircut. See how much it cost him? The most expensive haircut of his life.’”

John was the type of person that would do anything for anyone, Lila said.

“I had to be careful what I said,” she added. “He was a jack of all trades. There was nothing he couldn’t fix, nothing he couldn’t make.”

He made all the wood furniture in the couple’s house. He made all of Lila’s lamps. He made the table that stands in the middle of the dining hall entrance, with carved Notre Dame logos.

And once, he even made his own plane, Lila said.

“He was a pilot,” she said. “And he taught his whole family how to fly. They used to fly about everywhere they went.”

All in all, John was a man who loved to help others, Lila said.

“He would reach out to anything in need,” she said. “He loved to teach and he loved to learn.”

A contagious smile

Senior Marta Poplawski said she met John during her first weekend at Notre Dame. He stopped her as she was walking into the dining hall and asked for her name.

“The next day, he remembered me,” she said. “It was the first moment someone was really welcoming here outside of hall staff.”

A week later, Poplawski was going to eat dinner alone around 4:30 p.m. — then she saw John and Lila at a nearby table.

“So I sat down and just ate with them,” she said. “And that started three years of friendship.”

Over the years, John and Lila kept up with students and graduates. John won the Irish Clover Award last year, given to two individuals each year for outstanding service to the student body.

“I felt like John and Lila were my grandparents away from home, in a sense,” Poplawski said.

John’s smile was simply contagious, said senior Adam Degand. And it was always the same.

“He had such a goofy smile,” he said. “He would make you stop for a second, show you that smile and ask you about whatever’s going on.”

“Especially if you’re a freshman or new to the school — it makes you feel like you’re part of the community,” he added. “That’s special.”

Dining hall monitor Dee Michael said John always had a joke of the day.

“He loved the kids, and they loved him,” she said.

Some days, the dining hall would run out of certain dishes — because John talked about them too much.

“The cooks used to get so mad at him because he’d be telling them what the specials were, and people would listen to him. So we’d be running out of it,” South Dining Hall manager Ruth Pajor said.

Dennis Smith, a manager at South Dining Hall, said John’s warm and welcoming presence will be missed by all.

“The night is not the same when he’s not around,” he said. “He just had a glow about him.”

The simplest things 

Sami Zuba, a 2014 Notre Dame graduate, said in her freshman year, her birthday fell during the first two weeks of school. And she wasn’t having a great day.

“It was my first birthday away from home and everything,” she said. “But then I got up to the front of the line, John swiped my card and told me happy birthday. It just absolutely made my day to know that someone on campus cared.”

It was small acts like this that showed John’s big heart, Zuba said.

“It was just such a simple thing,” she said. “And I think a lot of people walk out of Notre Dame hoping they can do big things to make a difference in people’s lives. One of the best ways you can do that is just doing little things.”

Editor’s note: Sami Zuba was an assistant managing editor for The Observer.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, sophomore Amy Mansfield and her service dog Juniper would eat dinner in South Dining Hall before folk choir practice. And every time, John stopped them to ask how they were doing.

“You don’t expect someone to have such a big impact on your life when it’s a 30-second interaction each time you see him,” she said.

When people complained that the chairs the monitors sat on were too tall, John took one home each night and cut it down, until they were all shorter.

“That’s just the kind of guy he was,” Smith said.

John had the ability to immediately light up a room, Poplawski said.

“You could not enter with a bad mood into South Dining Hall,” she added. “I would wear headphones, and he would make me take them off to talk to him.”

John did much more than greet people, Mansfield said.

“I don’t know if it was his goal to touch every student, but I feel like everyone who walked through their line during dinner was somehow impacted,” she said. “Their day was probably made a little bit better.

A visitation for John will be held Sept. 24 at Osceola Methodist Church from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and will be immediately followed by a service. Both are open to the public.

Notre Dame Food Services is going to provide the meat and cake for the luncheon.

“We’re just so blessed and humbled to be a part of this community,” Lila said. “I couldn’t imagine it any other way.”

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About Katie Galioto

Katie, the Observer's current Managing Editor, is a junior majoring in political science, with minors in Business Economics and Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She's spending the semester in Rome, trying to eat lots of pizza and speak like an Italian. Katie hails from Chanhassen, Minnesota and is a loyal Walsh Hall resident on campus. Follow her on Twitter @katiegalioto.

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