October 29, 2013

Funeral held for slain Danvers High math teacher

Colleen Ritzer is remembered for making a difference.

By Jay Lindsay
The Associated Press

ANDOVER, Mass. — A Massachusetts high school teacher allegedly killed by a student last week was a bright light to her family and devoted to making a difference by “focusing on the adults of the future,” a relative said Monday at her funeral.

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Mourners line the steps of St. Augustine Church in Andover, Mass., Monday as the casket of slain Danvers High School teacher Colleen Ritzer is carried out from her funeral Mass into a hearse.

The Associated Press

Hundreds of mourners, including 12 busloads of students, packed Colleen Ritzer’s hometown church, many wearing her favorite color, pink.

Ritzer, 24, who taught math at Danvers High School, was killed after dismissal last Tuesday, police said.

Blood was found in a school bathroom and her body was later discovered in woods behind the school. Philip Chism, 14, has pleaded not guilty to a murder charge.

St. Augustine Church in Andover was filled to capacity for her funeral Mass. About 400 students crowded into the church’s lower level as sound from the service was piped in from the sanctuary.

In his homily, the Rev. Peter Gori touched on the shared grief.

“From deep within each of us comes the same cry, ‘This should not happen!’ Not to Colleen. Not to anyone,” he said.

Mourners donned pink ribbons or scarves, and bouquets including pink flowers were placed on the steps of the church.

Ritzer’s cousin Gina McDaniel said Ritzer loved cruising with friends, going to the beach or cheering school teams.

Ritzer tried to find something good in every day and even kept what she called a memory jar, which contained remembrances of good times, McDaniel said.

“She made people feel loved, comforted and optimistic. Colleen’s grace made her life fulfilling,” McDaniel said in a eulogy prepared for delivery at the service.

“In such a short period of time, one person has made a world of difference.”

Ritzer’s passion was teaching, and her unabashed love for math – she’d exclaim, “Yay math! Yay proofs!” – converted even the unenthusiastic, McDaniel said.

Her cousin, she said, “wanted to make this world a better place by focusing on the adults of our future.”

Teachers from Danvers and Andover lined the steps of St. Augustine as Ritzer’s coffin arrived at the church for the private funeral.

Gori, in prepared remarks for his homily, said the natural question after such a horrific crime is to ask, ‘Why?” But there’s no satisfactory answer in this case, he said.

“This makes it hurt even more,” he said

Authorities haven’t discussed a motive in the case.

Two of Chism’s classmates said he was in Ritzer’s classroom last Tuesday after dismissal, and shortly before she was killed. One said Ritzer asked Chism to stay after school when she noticed him doodling in class.

Chism had moved to Massachusetts from Tennessee before the start of the school year and played on the school’s junior varsity soccer team.

Court records indicate Chism’s parents had difficulties early in their marriage.

In a parenting plan included in 2001 divorce papers, his mother, Diana, insisted on supervising any time her husband, Stacy, had with their son and a younger daughter.

She cited “prior physical and emotional abuse as well as alcohol abuse” by her husband. Both adults signed the papers.

The divorce was apparently never finalized after both parents signed an order saying they wanted to try to reconcile.

On Saturday, Diana Chism released a statement through her son’s public defender, saying she’s heartbroken for Ritzer’s family.

Ritzer, though her life was cut short, made a great impact on those around her, Gori said.

“In that time that was hers, she showed herself to be a beloved daughter and granddaughter, a delightful sister, niece and cousin, a really good friend and student, and not least of all, a truly wonderful teacher,” he said.

Ritzer’s family has established a memorial scholarship fund to benefit Andover High School graduates who also pursue teaching careers.

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