Meet Colorado’s First Lady. Colorado’s first lady, Jeannie Ritter, has high energy, is down to earth, funny and refreshingly open. She is candid about her feelings on a variety of subjects but aware of the scrutiny that living in the public eye may bring to her and her family. At 51, Ritter knows who she is and understands her role as a first lady may have its uncomfortable times, but it can also allow her to be a conduit for her cause. As the wife of Gov. Bill Ritter, she brings to her role a fondness for service toward others.
Early in life, she joined the Peace Corps and later went with her husband to Africa to serve as lay missionaries. Now, Ritter chooses to improve the awareness of mental health issues and the services available in Colorado. Her commitment is firm, yet she knows she has chosen to focus on a difficult matter, one with numerous and complicated dynamics for individuals and families, as well as societal considerations. Ritter brings a unique perspective to the mental health agenda. With experience as a special education teacher and her personal commitment and dedication to the subject, she grasps the problems and is willing to put time and energy into improving mental health care. Because statistics show that Colorado ranks a disappointing 33rd for states in funding for mental health care, she understands that major changes are not going to occur overnight.
“We all have to start talking and getting more comfortable with this issue (of mental health),” says Ritter — mother of four and a former teacher — about the need for more mental health services. She explains, “I want to find a balance where we can have a level of acceptance of our brokenness. We all have a story, we have our issues or a family member with issues. We may experience death for the first time, and we’re not handling it the way we thought we would. We don’t have the tools we thought we had. How can we get the tools? “This is going to be a slow process. I can’t expect a shifting of funds until we raise the level of awareness,” Ritter says. “I’m making my way across the state, getting in and out of as many facilities, schools, coalition meetings and mental health hospitals as possible.”
She goes on to say, “You have to raise the level of awareness around the need for this and the potential for it” in discussing how those in a position to come in contact with someone who is mentally ill must be given permission, indeed encouragement, to direct the mentally ill to seek help. “We want to find a way so people can come forward,” Ritter says. “There’s a toll-free number people are actually using called Safe2Tell (Safe 2 Tellline-1-877-542-SAFE). It’s an avenue where, for example, a teacher can call in and say, ‘I’m seeing essays that aren’t healthy. Can someone follow up on this? I don’t have the expertise. I just know it’s uncomfortable.’ We have ways of finding out if this is potentially dangerous. We don’t have to just let them go,” Ritter says.
While she is interested in many issues and causes, she is focusing on mental illness for now. “I’m choosing to talk about mental health because it gives me an opportunity to talk about broader things, not just severe mental illness,” she says. “We want to talk about everything from anxiety disorders to a mom who’s just on the edge.” Ritter believes that improving mental health services in Colorado can give people the opportunity to have someone to talk with when their lives seem unmanageable, painful or difficult to cope with on their own.
There is no doubt that Ritter is reaching many and making a difference with her commitment to better mental health care services. Still, there are other sides to the new first lady. To know the real Jeannie Ritter is to know the mother behind this caring and active first family. Time has passed, of course, since Ritter’s first years as a mom, but she believes her very essence is the mother she was then and is today. It is a story still being written as the Ritter family matures and grows. Ritter speaks nostalgically about the time when her children were young. First came three boys, then a little girl. August, now 21; Abe, 19; Sam, 17; and daughter Tally, 14, make up the Ritter family. “My house was filled with rocks and dried animal skins,” she recalls. “I just saw everything as a teachable moment. At the top of the stairs I had this old claw-foot tub, and the kids would say, ‘Come on up, come on up, see what we have!’ I had this entire cow skeleton that was bleaching in the bathtub, so perfect for all the vertebrae and all the ribs coming off the vertebrae. There may have been a little cartilage left on it. The cow skeleton was out near our cabin, and we hauled it home.”
The Ritter family shared many such adventures, and Jeannie Ritter can tell the stories with affection and a sense of humor about pet frogs not surviving a neighbor’s water feature or other pets meeting a memorable fate. Having a little girl added to the family mix was a delightful experience for the Ritter family.
During one of the District Attorney campaigns, Ritter noticed how her daughter at 18 months was eager to spend time at a neighbor’s home across the street. “I realized she loved being over at the neighbor’s house because there were lace doilies, glass and crystal, and Tally was just kind of viscerally attracted to that,” she says with a smile. “My neighbor had a totally different environment than I had.”
Becoming Colorado’s first family has involved a major transition, and sometimes navigating through those changes has presented its share of challenges. While Gov. Bill Ritter has said in the past he was born without the worry gene, it is a little different for his wife and children. Jeannie Ritter comments, “I can get a good dose of worry worked up. You can’t move in the world I’m trying to move in right now without situations coming up.” Indeed, she is moving into new areas while taking on a high-profile role. Her children are keenly aware of what being part of the new first family means to their own lives. “My 14-year-old says there are lots of parts about this transition that are hard,” Ritter says. “They get that we are all going through changes.” She sees her current parenting role as helping her children steer through the changes in their lives that high visibility brings with it. Her goal is to maintain the family’s deep values while at the same time maintaining her own casual, open and unpretentious style as she moves into the new public role as the governor’s wife. Ritter brings to her life’s experience the growing-up years spent moving with her parents as her father was in the Navy. Moving and adventure were the norm. Her mother, who passed away 10 years ago, provided an openhouse environment where young people frequently gathered.
“I hope I can draw on some of the strengths I witnessed in my mom as I move forward,” Ritter says. “It doesn’t get any better than that (experience). You’re open in the world and communicate love in that way.” Ritter’s father, a retired Navy captain, lives in Pensacola, Fla. He is a proud father and father-in-law who has known “Billy” Ritter since age 16. Bill and Jeannie met in high school and married in 1984. With her mother’s sense of adventure and love of people, Ritter joined the Peace Corps after college and later went with Bill and their 1–year-old son, August, to Zambia, where they worked three years as lay missionaries at a food distribution center. Their second child, Abe, was born in Zambia. One of Ritter’s present-day concerns is about being characterized or pigeonholed as the perfect family in the public’s view. Much of their family life is spent in the public eye, and she knows that, as with any family, there are many facets to their collective life. “I’m jumpy about that,“ she says. “We’ve both spent a lot of energy building a family that’s strong, but they’re just kids. Sometimes it’s not all about what you invested. Life can be what is swirling about in our world, and they are independent. My kids have a right to make poor choices, like everybody else’s kids.
“The same is true for Bill and me,” she continues. “There are choices I’m going to make that aren’t going to be great and choices that he makes that aren’t going to be great. We aren’t perfect. It’s about our keeping our hands on the steering wheel and taking a deep breath,“ Ritter says about her life as a public figure and both the private and outgoing person she is, all at once. “I can be where I am in this marriage, in this moment of our lives with our children, and breathe through it and do the best I can with it. That’s a powerful thing to learn,” she says. Despite the pressures of being in the public eye and adjusting to a new role as first lady, Ritter is someone who knows how to have fun. “My mother said, ‘Find what you love and do what you love.’ I am really fed by connecting with people. People are my sport,” she says. “I flew for an airline in my early 20s, and I thought, ‘Are you kidding?’ Every leg was 125 new people. It was great for me,” Ritter says with a laugh. Now she realizes her role is to live in the public arena. She will do the best she can to juggle that role with her own private interests. She is inspired by some of the people she meets in her new role: “I have a job right now. I’m meeting fascinating people, and I ask myself if they are just powerful people, and then I realize they are simply passionate people.” Enthusiasm is a word that fits Ritter in whatever the role she finds herself to have at the time. Negotiating the various roles requires her to care for herself, too. As many women who are juggling a number of responsibilities have learned, she has learned the necessity of taking care of herself. Friendships play an important role.
“I have great girlfriends,” she says. “That’s my savings account right now. We’re all learning to text (message). I can be having a quaky day and get a text from somebody, an old friend. That is so grounding to know that you are supported and loved. I walk with some of them (friends), and I have yoga twice a week. I take care of me, and that’s kind of a recent thing. It was about everybody else for a long time. If I don’t take care of myself, I can’t do the things I pride myself on being able to do.” Of the many activities surrounding the first lady, corresponding with people is one her favorites. She receives a great deal of support mail about what she and her husband are undertaking. She is empathetic to the struggles she sees people going through in their daily lives. “I love correspondence. It’s one of my favorite things,” she says. “I could start today and write a thank-you note every three minutes. I have a lot of thanking to do. People who don’t know me are writing to me. Letters are starting out ‘We want to champion you’ and then end up with heartbreaking stories. Those people are in my heart.”
Ritter sees the chance for the governor’s office to make a difference. “We want to communicate. We have people in private foundations coming together with people and government affiliations,” she says. “That’s what is exciting about Bill’s administration. There is so much potential. That potential is not about Bill being a swell guy. He is. The real potential is that Bill has this way of bringing people together around these issues, and so do the people he puts around him. That’s what has to take place. We are not going to fix all this. We can’t do it all. We have to speak about these things in a way that is moderate. The private sector, the government and corporations can come together, and change can happen.”
Jeannie Ritter’s unassuming natural style, her big heart and her inclusive spirit transcend her surroundings and the challenging transition she has experienced. Her charm and endearing openness will serve her well as Colorado’s first lady. “We live in hope,” she says with her upbeat optimism.
By MARY ROSS
Photography KIT WILLIAMS