Nov. 6, 1929 – Jan. 4, 2016
Joseph P. Ritz, a prize-winning journalist, author and playwright, died Monday in Elderwood Skilled Nursing at Hamburg. He was 86.
Born in Chicago, he was raised by adoptive parents in Canton, Ohio, where he attended parochial schools. He joined the Army in 1948, was stationed in Fort Lewis, Wash., and was deployed to Fort Richardson, Alaska, near Anchorage, after the start of the Korean War.
He had his first newspaper article – a feature story on Army ski exercises – published in the Tacoma Tribune while he was at Fort Lewis. In Alaska, he joined the Anchorage Writers Club.
Following his discharge, he attended Seattle University and worked as a hopper for the Seattle Times, delivering bundles of newspapers to stores. After a year, he transferred to Marquette University, where he majored in journalism; was an associate editor of the Marquette Journal, the student magazine; and worked part-time as a copy boy for the Milwaukee Sentinel.
After earning his degree in 1955, he started work as a news writer for radio station WFDF in Flint, Mich., where he also was a stringer for the Detroit Times and United Press. He went on to become a reporter for the Gloversville Leader-Herald, the New Haven Journal-Courier and the Newburgh Evening News.
Before joining the Buffalo Courier-Express as a reporter in 1964, he was one of the writers in a series of articles, “The Road to Integration,” that won a 1964 Pulitzer Citation for Public Service for Gannett newspapers. He was a reporter, copy editor and editorial writer at the Courier-Express until it closed in 1982, then became an education, business and labor writer for The Buffalo News. He retired in 1993.
Mr. Ritz was honored with numerous awards. His series, “The Crisis in Buffalo’s Public Schools,” won a New York State Publisher’s Award for Community Service and an American Political Science Association Award in 1966. It also won him the first of seven Page One Awards he received from the Buffalo Newspaper Guild.
His labor columns for The News received several awards, including the U.S. Department of Labor’s Public Service Award in 1988. As a boy, he attended his first union meeting with his foster father, a union steward in a steel plant. In his professional life, he was active in the Newspaper Guild, serving as president of the Newburgh Guild and the Buffalo Newspaper Guild. He led a failed organizing attempt at the New Haven Journal-Courier.
In 1979, as chairman of a Guild committee looking into age discrimination at the Courier-Express, he was instrumental in obtaining compensation for 24 editorial staff members.
His 1966 book, “The Despised Poor: Newburgh’s War on Welfare,” was praised in national magazines and the New York Times. He also wrote a War of 1812 guidebook, “Blood Along the Niagara,” which was published in 2010, and a memoir, “I Never Looked for My Mother and Other Regrets of a Journalist,” in 2006.
Mr. Ritz began writing plays in college and he attended a Yale University graduate class in playwriting while working in New Haven. His first play to be staged, “Copy Desk,” based on the closing of the Courier-Express, was produced by the Buffalo Ensemble Theater in 1985.
A subsequent play, “Acts of Contrition,” set in a Trappist monastery, was one of four finalists in the Drama League of New York’s 1987-88 Plays in Progress Competition and was performed by the American Ensemble Theater Company in New York City.
A new version, entitled “Trappists,” was one of three plays chosen from nearly 600 submitted for the 1992 Theater in the Works festival at the University of Massachusetts. It had an extended run in New York in 1993 and won the Christians in Theatre Arts competition in 1994.
The New York Foundation for the Arts awarded him a playwriting fellowship in 2002. Marquette presented him its Byline Award for his work in journalism in 1996.
A longtime Hamburg resident, he also was a journalism instructor at Medaille College and SUNY Buffalo State.
He is survived by his wife of 57 years, the former Ann Girard; two daughters, Joanne Keith and Margaret; three sons, Michael, Robert and Jonathan; and eight grandchildren.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Saturday in SS. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, 66 E. Main St., Hamburg.