JOHNSON COUNTY – The late Earl “Skip” Ritz and the late William Russell Barker have been honored by the Kentucky General Assembly and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet with bridges named in their memory.
Dedication ceremonies for both bridges are set for Friday, August 6, and are open to all friends and family members of the two men. The Barker event takes place during the 25th Annual Van Lear Town Celebration, and everyone attending this festival is invited to also attend the bridge dedication.
The Earl “Skip” Ritz Memorial Bridge is on KY 3 at the Johnson/Floyd County line. The ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. on adjoining vacant state right of way. Speakers include State Senator Johnny Ray Turner, State Senator Ray S. Jones, and State Rep. Hubert Collins.
The William R. Barker Memorial Bridge is on KY 302 at the intersection of KY 1100 at West Van Lear. The ceremony will be held at 1 p.m. just beyond the bridge on CSX property on the left going into West Van Lear. Participants include State Senator Ray S. Jones, State Rep. Hubert Collins, Jim Kelly of the Van Lear Historical Society, and Tommy Meade, pastor of Richardson Chapel Primitive Baptist Church.
Both dedication ceremonies will begin with the Presentation of Colors from the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 18. The veterans will also offer a 21-gun salute at the end of each event.
Earl Ritz was 61 years old when he died on May 27, 2008. Born February 5, 1947, he left high school in Williamson (WV) and enlisted first in the National Guard. At the age of 18 he joined the U.S. Army, entering basic training at Fort Knox on December 28, 1965. His AIT training was at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and his MOS was 11C20, which indicated a mortar crew member. He served until December 27, 1971, first in Munich, Germany, for nine months, and then in Pleiku, Vietnam, with the Fourth Infantry. His duties included day and night patrols, where he and his fellow soldiers sustained enemy fire and lived in fields. He also sat ambush duty nightly. In addition, his entire outfit walked into a day ambush, which wiped out half the company. Ritz was wounded during this tour and earned a Purple Heart for service to his country.
His second Vietnam tour involved operations on the Cambodian border. In Prey Veng, while under intense sniper fire, an enemy soldier broke through the perimeter and threw satchel charges into the supplies, which included Napalm.
Ritz was discharged from Vietnam in October 1968, and assigned to Fort Meade, Maryland, and ultimately Fort Hood, Texas, where he stay until his honorable discharge in 1971.
After his military service, he lived in Texas for about 10 years, eventually moving back to the mountains where he chose to live in Paintsville. During the late 1980s he worked for Elmo Greer and Sons, the contractor who built the bridge being named in Ritz’s memory. Ritz was a member of the crew that built the bridge.
A Kentucky Colonel, Ritz devoted considerable time and energy collecting toys and clothing for Christmas in the Mountains.
His daughter, Lisa Ritz of Texas, is expected to attend the August 6 ceremony, as are his siblings Bruce, Mary Cathern, Ronald, Barry, Marty, and Ronald Ritz.
William Russell Barker, the fifth of the eight children of Helen Swentzel Barker and the late Earl Barker, was born January 6, 1949, and served in the United States Air Force from August 3, 1967, until March 22, 1971, after his graduation from Van Lear High School.
Described as a loving husband, father, son, brother, and grandfather, Barker was also a builder, inventor, farmer, prankster, giver, Bankmule, and friend. He and his wife, Tammy Auxier Barker, owned Barker Mobile Homes, which Tammy has continued to operate since his death on January 10, 2010. Barker was also chairman of the Johnson County Democrat Executive Committee and a board member of the Van Lear Historical Society.
The Barkers have three daughters, Amy Loney, Melissa Whittaker, and Julie Whittaker, and two grandchildren, Taylor and Brett Loney. All of his siblings are still living: John Barker, Deanna Elam, Bonnie Barker, Susan Kachenmeister, Wanda Salyer, Robin O’Bryan, and Vanessa Belcher.
The Barkers lived on a farm at Lowmansville. The bridge which will bear his name is near both his mobile home business and the Van Lear Historical Society, one of the most important groups to benefit from his countless hours of volunteer work.