Remembering Walt Ratterman

Late yesterday, the body of an extraordinary man was identified in the rubble of the Hôtel Montana in Port-au-Prince. Walt Ratterman had been in Haiti doing what he did best: providing humanitarian assistance to those least able to help themselves. When the 12 January earthquake struck, Walt was interred beneath the massive hotel that served as base for many foreign aid missions.

I first met Walt in 2003 through my friend Dipti Vaghela, who was lucky enough to call Walt her mentor. Our paths intersected again when another friend, Ardian Belic, made a feature-length documentary, Beyond the Call, on the unusual trio of Knightsbridge International, one of whom was Sir Walt Ratterman, Knight of Malta. Walt and I kept in touch sporadically over the years.

Adrian characterized the work of Walt and his colleagues as “an Indiana Jones meets Mother Teresa adventure.” Knightsbridge were frequently the first-in or the last-out in conflict zones other aid organizations and multilateral agencies found prohibitively dangerous. Relying on military backgrounds, living by their wits, and driven by a profound compassion, they were often flying solo in places like Rwanda, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and the Philippines.

Walt’s principal expertise and endeavors focused on solar energy systems; but much this work was imbued with the same spirit of humanitarianism and ever-present peril as his Knightsbridge exploits. His projects in Burma give a perfect illustration of the rock-hardness and intense thoughtfulness of this most complete and complicated man. His objective was to bring micro-solar capability to Burmese refugee groups, living in the tropical forests near the Thai border, in order to refrigerate medicines for their field hospitals. The refugees – and Walt – were hunted incessantly by Myanmar government forces, so Walt built the systems to be quickly dismantled and stashed in the jungle in the event of raids. At night in these encampments, when all were asleep, Walt would sneak from his pallet and sabotage the very systems he’d just helped assemble; and troubleshooting lessons would commence first thing in the morning. Each time a micro-solar project was completed, Walt would retrace his dangerous path through army-patrolled forest to the safety of Northern Thailand.

It is not difficult to understand how, in the days after the earthquake, so many people held out hope that Walt might have survived somewhere within the collapsed hotel. If anyone had the physical strength, presence of mind, and mental toughness to make it, Walt did. As days turned to weeks, however, we secretly knew what we would not admit until confronted with bitter proof.

It is hardly surprising that a life of the nobility, courage, and brilliance of Walt’s would attract a admirers from all corners of the world. Many of these lent their voices to a remarkable Facebook page, started when it was learned that Walt had been at the Hôtel Montana at the time of the devastating quake. Most inspirational among the posts on this page are those of Jeanne, Walt’s wife, whose serene courage shines through. Jeanne extends her own condolences to well-wishers, telling them: I didn’t lose Walt, we lost Walt.

I met Jeanne only once and briefly, in April of 2006, at the screening of Beyond the Call at the San Francisco International Film Festival. She had traveled from their home in rural Oregon to represent Walt at the celebration. Walt, of course, was on the opposite side of the world; but, thanks to a nice surprise orchestrated by Adrian, he spoke briefly to the audience via satellite telephone. He had just crossed the Khyber Pass into Pakistan after providing medical aid in war-torn Afghanistan. When I commented to Jeanne how good it was to have heard Walt’s voice, she smiled and said, “No kidding! That’s the first time I’ve heard it since he disappeared into Afghanistan two months ago.” Bravery comes in many forms. There is the confident intrepidness of the adventurers; and there is the thankless valor of those they leave behind. Walt leaves Jeanne and their son and daughter.

Since embarking on my own path of service, I’ve never had a specific goal or objective, taking-on projects according to my opportunities and passions du jour. But I’ve had a dream ever since the very first evening I met Walt Ratterman: to someday work by his side. My dream perished with Walt. Untimely death is always heartbreaking. But there is a special emptiness that comes with saying farewell to a personal hero.

7 Responses to “Remembering Walt Ratterman”

  1. 1 Asha Patel 11 February 2010 at 12:22 pm

    Thank you, Mark, for your eloquent post. Rahul had mentioned this to me a few weeks ago, but after reading your post, I feel a much deeper sense of all that Walt represented. I could almost feel Jeanne’s strength and bravery through your story. And Rahul and I will be joining in on the collective moment of silence tomorrow at 1:53 for Haiti’s earthquake victims.

    A lot of lives were lost at Port-au-Prince’s Hotel Montana. I was actually just interviewing a volunteer from South Orange County who left Haiti for Florida 5 hours before the quake on Jan. 12, and was seriously considering just staying the night to make it easier on herself. Now she sees her near-miss experience as a reason for her heightened involvement in Haiti’s future. I can send you the link to the story once it goes live.

    Love to you and Yoo-Mi.

  2. 3 Samantha 19 February 2010 at 8:30 am

    Nice blog, i like it, its informative,
    i will visit his blog more often.
    i like your article specially about
    Remembering Walt Ratterman


  3. 4 Trishna 1 April 2010 at 5:54 am

    So sad to hear this, I remember hearing his incredibly inspiring stories about rescuing people in Burma at a Circle of Sharing in Santa Clara. RIP Walt and may his work continue to live on through people like Dipti who were his mentees…

  4. 5 diane 11 March 2011 at 2:55 pm

    How is this man active on Facebook? I’m almost positive it’s the same man. Last post: Dec. 8th, 2010.

  5. 6 diane 11 March 2011 at 3:01 pm

    sorry…juuuuust noticed “In memory” on one of the comments but when that comment goes away…they should put something on the Page since you could easily assume he’s still alive.

  6. 7 Lalita 2 February 2013 at 11:17 am

    Wow, I just stumbled across this posting, and I didn’t realize that Walt was gone. Having watched Adrian’s documentary and hearing Walt’s humble words as a guest speaker on Wednesdays, he struck a chord with me. I was inspired by his relentlessness compassion and attitude of knowing what he needed to do without looking back.
    Thanks for posting this Mark.

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