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It was a call Sadie Johnson ’19 will never forget.

Over the winter break, Sadie was at her home near Indianapolis when Don Ritter ’81 — a fellow musician she met during her freshman year of high school — called to give her news she had been waiting to hear for many years.

“Don calls and says, ‘Alright (Don and his wife, Leslie Straub Ritter ’85) just donated a million dollars to Marietta College for a music therapy program. Merry Christmas.’ I was a sobbing mess,” she says. “My entire life, I have never done anything by the book. I’m a female blues guitar player. The thought of being here as the music therapy program is developed is the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”

Don, who works in the oil and gas industry, and Leslie, who is a principal for a consulting firm that specializes in executive coaching, merger integration and execution of human resource strategy, committed $1 million to the College to support the creation, staffing and facilities for a Music Therapy major. The College is in the final stages of hiring a faculty member, who will teach one course in the fall and also design the academic program.

The College will enhance the McKinney building this summer to add a fully equipped recording studio and transform the radio station to include Music Therapy observation studios. Don says the College will also be able to incorporate the television studio into the program, as the Ryan Seacrest Foundation has established several radio and television studios in hospitals around the country in support of music therapy. These facilities could provide Marietta an advantage in the world of music therapy education. The studio and practice space will be open to non-music majors to help promote a “live music” culture. The Ritters also initiated a $500,000 matching gift challenge to support the department over the next five years.

“We have to go through the accreditation process with the Ohio Department of Higher Education, the Ohio Music Therapy Association and the American Music Therapy Association,” says Marshall Kimball, Associate Professor of Music and Chair of the Department. “What the College will apply to offer is a Bachelor of Music in Music Therapy, which would be accredited through three different organizations. It could eventually lead to a master’s program as well.”

Marshall says the Ritters have already provided a great deal of support to the music department by donating dozens of high-quality instruments and equipment.

“This gift is transforming the arts at Marietta College,” says Dr. Janet Bland, Provost and Dean of the Faculty.

Music therapists have to be proficient in guitar, singing, acting, voice, piano, percussion and a principal instrument, Marshall says.

“Plus, the major also has a strong psychology component, so that department will also be involved,” Marshall says. “This is an unbelievable gift and I can’t thank Don and Leslie enough for their generosity. This is going to help so many people.”

The Ritters knew the program would be successful after a feasibility study was completed for Marietta College by Ohio University’s music therapy program.

“OU’s program is full,” Don says. “I really think that, with the right amount of promotion and a quality faculty member leading the program and the right facilities, there should not be a reason why this program couldn’t grow.” Don says. “Ninety percent of the music therapists are female. This campus needs help with that layer of diversity. This is a growing field and a perfect platform to further distinguish Marietta as an institution providing the graduates needed in the coming years.”

“But he persisted and told me about Marietta, where he went. He said, ‘I want to start a music therapy program there and I want you to be the first to graduate from it.’ That’s a lot of blind faith in me. Of course, my dad was standing there and said, ‘Yes, sign her up.’ I fought it until my first visit here.”
- Sadie Johnson '19

Marshall says his phone began ringing as soon as the announcement was made about Don and Leslie Ritter’s donation.

“The music world is pretty connected,” Marshall says. “The first calls I got were from people interested in filling the position. I started getting calls from high school students wanting to know more about the proposed major. And then the hospitals, hospice and nursing homes started calling. Forty percent of OU’s music department are music therapy majors. But none of them stay in this region once they graduate.”

For Don, the idea to establish a music therapy program at Marietta developed organically. Having had a successful career in the oil and gas industry, Don also maintained his love of music. About 12 years ago, while looking to purchase a custom amplifier for an electric guitar, he met a fellow musician who also built amps on the side.

“A year later, we started a company called Category 5,” Don says. “We’d decided that we’d give the money we’d probably never make to charity. Lo and behold, we started doing that and, interestingly enough, some pretty good guitar players started to play them.”

That top talent includes Joe Bonamassa, Gavin DeGraw, Chris Rodriguez, Keith Urban, Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift Band, Brad Paisley, The Allman Brothers, The Kenny Chesney Band and numerous other respected musicians in the industry. During Category 5’s early days, Don became involved in Blue Star Connection, a charity that provides instruments to seriously ill children and young adults, hospitals and music therapy programs.

“We’ve donated instruments to 54 music therapy programs and I have personally delivered instruments to about 30 of them,” Don says. “I have interacted with music therapists, watched what they do, talked with the doctors and got real insight to how having access to instruments affects the kids.”

About the same time Category 5 was taking off, Don met Sadie while she was performing with her sisters at a music festival.

“I had seen her over the years at this festival and I started to get to know her,” he says. “I talked to her about what she wanted to do and she said she was going to skip college and tour. She was already doing that — she was touring Europe as a guitar player. But knowing a lot of musicians from my other business, I told her that she really needed a Plan B if she was going to be a lifelong musician, and one that could transcend the performance-only world. And while she was an accomplished guitar player already, Marietta has also transformed her singing.”

Sadie recalls that conversation and how Marietta College was brought into it.

“Don asked me, ‘Have you thought about college?’ and my reply to him was, ‘No way, I’m going to be a rock star,’ ” she says. “But he persisted and told me about Marietta, where he went. He said, ‘I want to start a music therapy program there and I want you to be the first to graduate from it.’ That’s a lot of blind faith in me. Of course, my dad was standing there and said, ‘Yes, sign her up.’ I fought it until my first visit here.”

Her volunteer work over the years with Blue Star Connection has solidified her decision to take her musical talents to a different level. She has worked with new music therapists to show them how electric guitars can benefit their therapies because they are lighter, easier on the fingers and are easier to make neat noises with than acoustic guitars.

“To think how many people we’re going to impact — students, patients and the community — this is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing,” Sadie says.

- Gi Smith