A humanitarian’s family brings him home

Walt Ratterman’s story is told by those who loved, admired him

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

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CAMAS — In the prime of his life, Walt Ratterman dived headlong into adventure that would carry him around the globe.

To the Amazon River, remote plains in Afghanistan and Mongolia, villages in India, Burma, Rwanda.

And, finally, to Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

None of this was self-serving. These were humanitarian aid journeys — perfect mesh of man and mission — by a deft problem-solver who spent the last decade spreading solar power to light up the lives of others.

Small wonder that a slide show during his memorial service on Saturday labeled this life’s turn: “When Indiana Jones met Mother Theresa.”

Or that a sturdy, G.I. Joe-type action figure in Ratterman’s likeness stood out among his prized keepsakes and gifts on display.

“He was a one-of-a-kind guy, a real Superman,” said Frank Lench, a former business colleague, moments after the two-hour service concluded at Grace Foursquare Church. “I’ve never met anyone like him.”

Elsewhere online

For information and to help continue Walt Ratterman’s work:

http://www.kbi.org (Knightsbridge International)

http://www.sunepi.org (Sun Energy Power International)

http://www.solarenergy.org (Solar Energy International)

Neither had most of the family and friends of the 57-year-old Washougal resident, who died in Haiti’s devastating Jan. 12 earthquake while serving there.

“This would be the sort of thing he would have run to, if he had not already been there giving aid,” said the Rev. Richard Edmundson.

Here was “a hero’s hero” who “gave love” in places that were much in need, Edmundson said.

“He led us. He was the best of us,” said Edward Artis, president of Knightsbridge International, a nongovernmental organization Ratterman had joined to spearhead overseas projects.

There were a few somber, formal moments: Bagpipes and “Taps” played, before a final gun salute and flag presentation.

But Jeanne Ratterman set the tone when she shared with a crowd of about 200 a touch of her late husband’s humor and humanity, striding barefoot to the altar.

“Walt was a barefoot kind of guy,” she explained. She described his relentless work ethic as a teenage house painter near Baltimore, Md., even while he pursued college and was an accomplished musician.

They were married by age 20. His electrical and construction management work took them to Arizona, California and Alaska before they settled in Washougal in 2004, she said. He kept fastidious journals of everything and was super-organized.

Yet flexibility in any situation — from high school prank to eluding expulsion, building the couple’s solar-powered home or clearing travel and diplomatic hurdles — was his hallmark, she said.

A 1996 African trip with home-building Habitat for Humanity “really opened his eyes,” Jeanne said. “After that, there was no looking back.” Within three years he would team with Knightsbridge to found his nonprofit Sun Energy Power International and pursue solar micro-projects that changed lives.

“It’s all about doing best what you’re good at,” she said. “He was really blessed. God had a purpose for him. He still amazed me. How did he do all this … and I’m right here watching him?” she said.

Legacy endures

Ratterman’s knack for linking remote people to electricity tied into the essential unity of mankind, said several guests.

Darius Jazayeri spoke for the Partners in Health agency that’s now building an energy-sustainable hospital on Haiti’s central plain, the project that had lured Ratterman. He said the facility will stand as testament, then read a condolence letter sent by the health minister for Rwanda.

Two dozen members of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation came from Portland, Seattle and San Jose, Calif., to pay respects. Ratterman had partnered with Tzu Chi on several initiatives.

Artis, the Knightsbridge leader, marveled at joint work by Ratterman and Tzu Chi to restore parts of war-ravaged Afghanistan, starting in 2002.

“Here you had Christians helping Muslims with Buddhist money,” Artis said. He said Ratterman’s credo captured his steady strength and creativity: “There’s always a way.”

As did another: “See one. Do one. Teach one,” Artis said.

Jeanne Ratterman said Walt’s “crowning glory” was to see volunteers he once taught go on to teach others.

She expressed gratitude that his body was found in the rubble of the Hotel Montana early this month, more than three weeks after the earthquake.

“I have no doubt our prayers were answered. We found Walt, and brought him home,” Jeanne said. “I wish he was still here. I really miss him,” she said.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.