Jerome Ritter spends most of his time taking care of his wife, Norma Jean, in addition to spending time with his family since the longtime family business closed in 2015.
Ritter was born in St. Louis in 1928. He had five brothers and one sister. His father was a musician after his time in Navy. He worked as a sound effects and percussionist for silent movies. Ritter noted his father had countless whistles, castanets, drums, Chinese gongs and more.
“He had to make sound effects for somebody riding on a horse, getting shot, a train coming into the station, and all those kinds of things,” Ritter said.
Additionally, his father played at the Missouri Theater, now Powell Symphony Hall.
“He had a nice job, but all that was fine, and then the Depression hit,” Ritter said.
His father still maintained his job for a year, but it was eliminated when natural sound was incorporated into movies.
Shady Shell Park
The family moved to St. Clair when Ritter was 2 years old. His father partnered with Edward Berkel to operate an auto salvage yard and mechanic shop. The two families bought a 24-acre property called Shady Shell Park, located off of Gravois Road near Interstate 44, to start the business and to build homes for the two families.
“It had a garage, gas pumps and three single cabins and a double cabin,” Ritter said as he described what the property was formerly used for. “It was a place on Route 66 that people would come and stay overnight. They go so far on Route 66; they had to rent a cabin along the way for the night.”
Over the years, Ritter said the Berkel and Ritter Salvage Yard was successful in St. Clair.
“We’d take a load of scrap iron into St. Louis maybe two or three (times) a week,” he said. “This place was covered with automobiles. We had so many vehicles here, it was just ridiculous.”
Ritter said his brothers and the Berkel boys served in World War II. When the Ritter brothers came home from World War II, Kenneth Berkel did not. Ritter said Kenneth died either in Normandy or during the Battle of the Bulge.
“His mom and dad got a telegram saying that he was killed,” Ritter said.
He noted that the death of Kenneth left the Berkel family devastated, and they decided to get out of the salvage yard business. Ritter’s father had to buy out Edward Berkel and he received a loan from the Bank of Sullivan to do so.
Ritter’s brother, Jack, eventually left the family business and moved to St. Louis to work for Emerson Electric.
For a short time, Ritter mention that the family business was a Chrysler car showroom, in addition to a mechanic shop. They showed and sold Chryslers until the car company closed in St. Clair.
In 1964, when Ritter’s father died, Ritter took over the motor company and ran it until 2015.
“He asked me to do the best I could to keep (the business) up,” Ritter said.
Korean War Service
Ritter’s experience in the family business shaped his assignment in the Korean War. Ritter said he was in a special category of the Army attached to the Air Force called Personnel of Special Category Army with Air Force, or SCARWAF.
From December 1950 to December 1952, he served as a mechanic at Clark Air Base located on Luzon Island in the Philippines.
“While I was there, I got a chance to take a cruise to Hong Kong. It wasn’t the best time. You couldn’t get off the main drag anywhere, because you were taking your life into your own hands,” he said.
“It was a crossroads of the world over there at that time. You wouldn’t recognize the waterfront from what it was when I was there and what it is now. It’s nothing but skyscrapers now.”
In the late 1940s, Ritter met Norma Jean at a roller rink in Washington. Before returning home from the war, he stopped in Guam and did a little shopping.
“I wound up buying my wife’s wedding rings there. Of course, she didn’t know I was going to do that,” he said.
Norma Jean and Ritter married in 1953 and they recently celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. Together they have eight children, 25 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Now in retirement, the Ritters enjoy spending time with their family. They still live on the property behind the former Ritter Motor Company building.