There are some teachers who make kids look forward to school and when Kerin Steigerwalt was a Parkland High sophomore, John Ritter was that person for her.
“He is probably one of the most influential people in my life, hands down,” Steigerwalt said Tuesday of her former English teacher. “He was a teacher who would push you to think beyond what you thought you could do. He really showed us how to go from adolescent writing that you’d expect from a teenager to much more sophisticated, provocative pieces. He instilled in many of us a love of classic literature that is with us today.”
Now Ritter is fighting an extremely rare blood cancer and Steigerwalt is hoping his popularity will contribute to an outpouring of potential donors when Parkland Education Association holds a bone marrow drive 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. on May 19 at the high school. The test to see if you are a match is a painless 10-second swab of the inside of the mouth. Donors must be between the ages of 18 and 55.
When former Parkland students learned of Ritter’s diagnosis through online social media, there was an outpouring of admiration and affection for him, said Steigerwalt, who currently teaches 7th grade English at Springhouse Middle School.
Since his diagnosis in 2008, Ritter has been through chemotherapy but was told his only hope is a bone marrow transplant. Though his immune system is battered, he expects to attend the bone marrow drive, which is during Parkland’s Festival of the Arts.
In advance of the drive, Ritter wrote an account of his four-year disease and treatment; the average life expectancy from diagnosis to death is nine months. He learned he had blood cancer while he was on sabbatical from his 30-year teaching career in order to run for the 187th state legislative district seat currently held by Gary Day. Ritter finished the race, losing to Day.
Since then the cancer and treatment have taken a toll. He wrote this: “Faced with mortality, my bucket list is pretty mundane. In the immediate future I hope to enjoy another sunset, moonlit night, and sunrise. I hope to have another day to hold hands with my wife and cuddle in bed. Our bluebirds have returned to their nesting box; I hope to see them raise a successful clutch. I hope to be well enough to pick raspberries and huckleberries this summer. I hope to enjoy another summer, fall, winter and, even, spring.”
While Ritter’s illness has given him a renewed focus on living in the moment, he said he missed teaching. “I think the joy of the whole thing was providing an opportunity for students to see the world in a way they hadn’t before,” Ritter said.
Ritter and his wife Lynn live in North Whitehall Township. They have three sons, Seth, a second year intern in emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; Michael, a photographer in Boston; and Zacchary, a doctoral student at Georgetown University.