Mariana Ritchie grew up in Romania, her life strictly controlled by a brutal Communist regime.
“I never dreamed of a knight in shining armor coming to rescue me,” said Mariana, now the wife of Air Force ace pilot Steve Ritchie. “I knew it would take an American fighter pilot.”
Mariana joined her husband, now Brigadier General Steve Ritchie, at Newnan High School as part of the NHS History Speaker Series, sponsored by the school’s History Club/history and social studies department recently.
“At first glance, I may look like the general’s little wife,” Mariana said. “But I am the oppressed that you rescued, America, and the American who fights alongside you to keep our freedom from slipping through our fingers.”
Living under Communist rule meant bread and water lines, government propaganda, a paralyzed economy, a health care system that was more likely to kill than cure and swift and harsh punishment for anyone whom officials perceived as a threat, she said. That included children like Mariana.
“While American children were learning to love and trust themselves, we were learning to hate, trust no one and control every word we said because our lives depended on it,” she said.
As a young girl, Mariana said she clipped a photograph of an American flag from a contraband magazine.
“I would take it out and look at it and imagine what it would be like to live in America,” she said. “I would try to imagine what a hamburger tasted like, what it looked like. There was no Internet back then.”
Mariana had a close call when a classmate reported her for having her treasured American flag photo.
“I hid it just in time,” she said, adding that she would have been killed during that period in Romania for the things she was sharing with students and other audience members who were gathered in the Newnan High Auditorium to hear the couple speak.
Mariana eventually immigrated to the United States with her parents, where she settled into the life she’d only dreamed of for most of her life.
Her future husband had fought Communism as an American Air Force pilot, shooting down an unprecedented five MiG-21s over North Vietnam in 1972. Ritchie, the only Air Force Ace since the Korean War and one of the most decorated Air Force pilots in military history, was awarded the Air Force Cross, four Silver Stars, 10 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 25 Air Medals.
Originally from Reidsville, N.C., Ritchie began his Air Force career as a cadet at the Air Force Academy in the class of 1964. He was a starting halfback for the Falcons, playing his final game in the 1963 Gator Bowl, which he ruefully recalled losing to his home state Tar Heels 35-0.
In 1965, Ritchie graduated first in his class in Air Force pilot training at Laredo AFB, Texas, and four years later became one of the youngest instructors ever at the Air Force "Top Gun" Fighter Weapon School, Nellis AFB, Nev.
He was one of the few second lieutenants selected to fly the F-104 Starfighter immediately following initial pilot training. More than 40 years later, he became re-certified in the Starfighter.
But Ritchie downplayed his own history, telling the Newnan High crowd that it was Mariana’s story they really needed to hear.
After sharing some of her experiences, Mariana praised the school’s efforts to bring history to life for its students.
“I would like to thank Newnan High School for restoring our faith in the public school system,” she said. “It’s amazing. For you students, if you don’t realize it now, years from now you will. You’re probably the luckiest students in the country.”
The speaker series, an outreach of the NHS History and Social Studies Department/ History Club, features two speakers each year. The department is a partner with the Department of Defense in its 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Vietnam War.