Officials, Residents Mourn Unexpected Passing of Veterans Advocate John Ratka

Veterans Northeast Outreach Center Executive Director John Ratka addressed veterans during a Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce breakfast on Nov. 9, 2018. (WHAV News photograph)

Residents are mourning the unexpected passing of John E. Ratka, a 26-year Navy veteran who recently served as the city’s acting veterans’ services director.

Ratka, the longtime executive director of Veterans Northeast Outreach Center and a member of the city’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Ad Hoc Commission, reportedly died Saturday morning after being stricken ill Friday.

“By any standard of reason John was a giant in veterans services and a fine sailor. He will be sorely missed. I hope to be half the leader that he was,” said Ralph T. Basiliere, commission chairman.

City Council Vice President Thomas J. Sullivan plans a moment of silence during Tuesday night’s City Council meeting. Sullivan spoke highly of Ratka’s accomplishments during his time in Haverhill, including operating the original home for veterans on Cedar Street and the subsequent expansion into the Mount Washington neighborhood. “This has made such positive difference in the quality of life for veterans and other residents of the neighborhood,” he said.

Ratka, of Salem, N.H., was a retired command master chief and chief of the boat while enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He was appointed by Mayor James J. Fiorentini last September to serve as acting veterans services director upon the retirement of Michael Ingham. He served until the December appointment of separated U.S. Marine Captain Amanda Buckley.

During a live broadcast heard over WHAV in November, Ratka discussed work behind creating more than 50 new housing units for veterans in and around the Merrimack Valley. One of his most recent projects was closing on the former Gerson furniture building on Haverhill’s Washington Street. The long-vacant property will become 44 apartments for veterans and their families.

Sullivan said, “Perhaps the greatest honor we can give him is to remember him when we dedicate the new mixed use commercial and residential development in the former Gerson’s Furniture center.”

Under Ratka’s watch, Veterans Northeast Outreach Center received more than $2 million in federal money in 2016 as part of the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program. He has also shepherded the building program at group’s main campus at the former St. Rita’s Church. Last year, he was presented with the Secretary’s Award for Outstanding Achievement from the Department of Veteran Affairs.

Basiliere, who told WHAV he has worked with Ratka at least eight years, called out “Fair winds Chief” in his notice to the Commission. “I am proud to have counted John as one of my personal friends and a mentor. My thoughts are with his family and the larger veterans’ family.”