In 1918, August A. Ritterbeck (above) was 16 years old and looking for a job. Work was hard to come by in Scranton, Pa. so he called his brother Al, who was living in Weehawken, N.J. Al had a neighbor, Herman Schmidt, who owned and operated a church painting business. Herman agreed to give young "Gus", as he was called, a try. So Gus packed up all his earthly belongings and headed to New Jersey to begin his apprenticeship with the Schmidt Church Art Co. Gus took immediately to his new trade, showing off a steady hand and a good eye for color. Over the next twenty years he would become an invaluable member of the company, working his way up through the ranks and eventually becoming a job foreman. It was during these years that he learned all the necessary requirements of church decorating, including scaffold planning and erecting, color mixing, designing and manufacturing liturgical stencil patterns, and the use of gold leaf, among many other skills. Also during these years, Gus was trained by Herman in the art of religious statue restoration, a skill that would one day become invaluable to him.
(Click for a better view)
Having married and started a family back in Scranton, Gus eventually tired of the constant commuting up and down the eastern seaboard, not to mention the travel that was required for his work with the Schmidt firm. In 1939 he decided to return to Scranton, where he started his own company. Thus, Ritterbeck Painting was born.
Unfortunately for Gus, he was not known around the area as a church decorator and had to console himself with mostly residential or commercial work. He was, however, contacted regularly to perform statue restoration for some local area parishes over the next ten years. It was his talent in this area that finally got him noticed, and slowly he began to establish himself as a church decorator. Implementing a lesson he had learned from Herman Schmidt, he hired the best painters he could find. This strategy would serve the company well, as men like Peter Dippre and Joseph Spitzer became household names in the industry. These men, and others, were an integral part of the success of August A. Ritterbeck Painting.
As Gus began to contract larger church jobs, he knew eventually he would need a mural artist. He did not have to look far, as he had developed a close friendship with Hans Schmidt, Herman's son, during his years in New Jersey. Hans had studied religious art under the European masters in Italy for five years during the 1920's before feeling confident enough to come back to the states and begin working for his father. Whenever Gus called, Hans would join up with the crew and perform his magic on the walls and ceilings of various churches.
Around 1940, August's son, Robert, who would have been about twelve at the time, began hanging around the paint shop after school and on the weekends. He loved being around his Dad, and working with him was a way to spend time together. He started to learn how to patch, prime and sand the statues that Gus was working on. This is how his education in the business began. Robert worked with his Dad every summer until he graduated from the University of Scranton in 1950, when he went to work full time and began to get serious about learning the church decorating business. By this time the business was thriving and for the next fourteen years, the business grew steadily. It was also during these years that Gus ran for, and was elected Tax Collector for the city of Scranton, serving two terms. Then, on June 15, 1964, August died of heart disease.
Click to enlarge a picture of Gus in the office of Tax Collector of Scranton.
For more History of the company, go on to History Part 2