FOR over three decades, Donald Ridley represented the legal interests of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He was instrumental in defining the rights of patients to refuse blood products. His work led to several state supreme court victories. Known to his friends as Don, he was diligent, humble, and self-sacrificing.
In 2019, Don was diagnosed with a rare neurological disease for which there is no cure. The disease progressed rapidly, and he died on August 16, 2019. This is his story.
I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A., in 1954 to a middle-class, Roman Catholic family. I am the second oldest of five children. I attended a Catholic elementary school, and I was an altar boy. Still, I had very little Bible knowledge. Although I believed that there must be a God who created everything, I lost all faith in the church.
LEARNING THE TRUTH
During my first year at William Mitchell College of Law, Jehovah’s Witnesses called at my home. I was busy doing my laundry, and the couple graciously agreed to return. When they did, I had two questions for them: “Why don’t good people get ahead in the world?” and “What does it take to be happy?” I accepted the book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life and the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, with its eye-catching green cover. I also agreed to a Bible study. This really opened my eyes. I was impressed with the idea that God’s Kingdom is a much-needed government that will administer mankind’s affairs on earth. I could see that human self-rule had been a complete failure and that it had left a world full of pain, suffering, injustice, and tragedy.
I dedicated myself to Jehovah in early 1982 and got baptized later that year at the “Kingdom Truth” Convention held at the St. Paul Civic Center. I returned to the civic center the following week to take the Minnesota bar exam. In early October, I learned that I had passed the exam, which qualified me to practice law.
At that “Kingdom Truth” Convention, I met Mike Richardson, a Brooklyn Bethelite, who explained that a legal office had been established at headquarters. I remembered the words of the Ethiopian eunuch recorded at Acts 8:36 and asked myself, ‘What prevents me from asking to work at the Legal Office?’ So I applied for Bethel service.
My parents were not happy that I had become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. My dad asked me what working for Watchtower would do for my legal career. I explained that I would be doing a volunteer work. I told him I would be given $75 a month, which was the monthly reimbursement for Bethelites.
After completing some employment obligations, I started my Bethel service in Brooklyn, New York, in 1984. I was assigned to the Legal Office. For me, the timing could not have been better.
THE STANLEY THEATER RENOVATION
The Stanley Theater in Jersey City, New Jersey, was purchased in November 1983. The brothers applied for permits to renovate the building’s electrical and plumbing systems. When they met with the local officials, the brothers explained that they intended to use the Stanley Theater as a convention hall for Jehovah’s Witnesses. That posed a problem. The city’s zoning ordinance restricted houses of worship to residential neighborhoods. The Stanley Theater was in the downtown business district, so the city officials refused to issue the permits. The brothers appealed the decision, but the appeal was denied.
During my first week at Bethel, the organization filed a lawsuit in the federal district court, challenging the denial of the permits. Because I had just finished my two-year clerkship in the federal district court in St. Paul, Minnesota, I was very familiar with the arguments presented. One of our attorneys argued that the Stanley Theater had been used for various public events, from movies to rock concerts. Why, then, should it be illegal to have a religious event? The federal district court considered the matter and ruled that Jersey City had violated our religious liberty. The court ordered the city to issue the needed permits, and I started to see how Jehovah blessed his organization’s use of legal means to advance his work. I was so happy to have had a share in it.
The brothers launched a massive renovation project, and the graduation of the 79th class of Gilead was held in the Jersey City Assembly Hall on September 8, 1985, less than a year after the renovation started. I felt privileged to be able to advance Kingdom interests as part of the legal team, and the satisfaction I felt far surpassed any feeling that I had experienced in connection with a legal endeavor prior to my coming to Bethel. Little did I know that Jehovah had many more such privileges in store for me.
DEFENDING RIGHTS FOR BLOODLESS MEDICAL TREATMENT
In the 1980’s, it was not uncommon for doctors and hospitals to override the request of an adult Witness to be treated without blood products. Pregnant women faced greater obstacles because judges often felt that the women had no legal right to turn down a transfusion. Judges reasoned that if a transfusion was not administered, the infant might be left without a mother.
On December 29, 1988, Sister Denise Nicoleau suffered severe hemorrhaging after giving birth to her son. Her hemoglobin dropped below 5.0, and her physician asked for her consent to transfuse blood. Sister Nicoleau refused. The next morning, the hospital sought to obtain a court order authorizing the hospital staff to administer what they considered to be necessary blood transfusions. Without conducting a hearing or even informing Sister Nicoleau or her husband, the judge authorized the hospital to administer the transfusions.
On Friday, December 30, the hospital staff transfused Sister Nicoleau despite the objections of her husband and other family members who were at her bedside. That evening, several family members and one or two elders were arrested for allegedly forming a human wall around Sister Nicoleau’s bed to prevent the transfusions. On Saturday morning, December 31, the New York City and Long Island news outlets were reporting the arrests.
On Monday morning, I spoke with the presiding justice, Milton Mollen. I described the facts of the case, stressing that the trial judge had signed the transfusion order without a hearing. Justice Mollen asked me to come to his office later that afternoon to discuss the facts and relevant law. My overseer, Philip Brumley, accompanied me to Justice Mollen’s chambers that evening. The judge also invited the hospital’s attorney to join us. Our discussion was heated. At one point, Brother Brumley made a note on his legal pad telling me that I should “tone it down.” In hindsight, that was good counsel because I was getting very worked up in refuting the attorney’s arguments.
After about an hour, Justice Mollen said that the case would be first on the docket the next morning. As we were leaving his chambers, Justice Mollen said that the hospital’s attorney had a “heavy burden tomorrow.” This meant that the attorney would be hard-pressed to defend his position. I felt that Jehovah was reassuring me that our case was strong. I was humbled to think that Jehovah was using us to accomplish his will.
We worked into the night preparing our argument for the next morning. The courthouse is just a few blocks from Brooklyn Bethel, so most of those from our small Legal Office walked there. After the four-justice panel heard our arguments, they canceled the transfusion order. The high court ruled in Sister Nicoleau’s favor and established that the common practice of obtaining an order or a hearing without notice was a violation of fundamental constitutional rights.
New York’s highest court ultimately affirmed Sister Nicoleau’s right to be treated without blood. It was the first of four blood-related decisions by high state courts that I have had the privilege to share in. (See the box “State Supreme Court Victories.”) I have also joined other attorneys at Bethel in cases involving child custody, divorce, real estate, and zoning.
MY MARRIAGE AND FAMILY LIFE
When I first met my wife, Dawn, she was a single divorcée raising three children. She was earning a living and pioneering. She had experienced a difficult life, and I was deeply impressed by her determination to serve Jehovah. In 1992, we attended the “Light Bearers” District Convention in New York City, and I asked to court her. We married a year later. Having a spiritually-minded and fun-loving wife has been a gift from Jehovah. Dawn has truly rewarded me with good all the days of our life together.—Prov. 31:12.
When we got married, the children were 11, 13, and 16 years old. I wanted to be a good father to them, so I carefully read and applied everything I could find in our publications about being a stepparent. There were challenges over the years, but I rejoice that the children have come to accept me as their trusted friend and loving dad. We had an open-door policy with our kids’ friends and thoroughly enjoyed a houseful of energetic teenagers.
In 2013, Dawn and I moved to Wisconsin to help care for aging parents. To my surprise, my Bethel service did not end. I was invited to continue offering legal assistance to our organization as a temporary volunteer.
A SUDDEN CHANGE
In September 2018, I noticed that I was clearing my throat a lot. Our local doctor examined me, but he could not determine what caused the problem. Later, another doctor suggested that I see a neurologist. In January 2019, the neurologist made a tentative diagnosis of a rare neurological disorder that is called progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP).
Three days later, while ice skating, I fractured my right wrist. I have been skating all my life; it was second nature to me. So I knew that I was losing motor skills. The rapid development of my neurological disorder has been surprising, adversely affecting my speech, mobility, and ability to swallow.
I have been so privileged to use my experience as a lawyer to play a small role in advancing Kingdom interests. And I have been privileged to write many articles in professional journals as well as to speak at medicolegal seminars around the world, defending the right of Jehovah’s people to choose nonblood medical and surgical management. Still, to paraphrase Luke 17:10: ‘I am a good-for-nothing slave. What I have done is what I ought to have done.’