ERIE, Pennsylvania – Mike Batchelor invited the heads of 46 charities into his downtown office for one-on-one meetings to personally deliver the news. Nearby, on a small table, sat a box of tissues.
And then he proceeded: A donor had given a staggering $100 million to the Erie Community Foundation, and all of the charities would receive a share.
That was when the tears began to flow — and the mystery began — in this struggling old industrial city of 102,000 on Lake Erie, where the donor is known only as "Anonymous Friend."
Batchelor, president of the Erie Community Foundation, has been sworn to secrecy and will allow only that the donor worked with the organization for years to identify deserving recipients before the announcement over the summer.
Is the donor dead or alive? No comment, Batchelor says. What is the donor's connection to Erie? No comment.
The talk about the gift has taken an interesting turn in recent weeks. As much as everyone here would like to know their benefactor's identity, many are also reluctant to pry.
"My feeling is that we're not honoring the donor if we spend time speculating about it," says Rebecca Brumagin, executive director at the Achievement Center, which provides physical therapy and other services to children. The center, which serves 3,200 children a year, will get $2 million.
"The needs are really great. So we will be able to help more children because of this," Brumagin says.
Kitty Cancilla cried when she learned the homeless shelter where she is executive director will get $2 million. Its previous largest donation was $25,000. Even now, Cancilla clutches a balled-up tissue and fights back tears as she talks about the gift.
Cancilla says she is unable even to speculate who the donor could be.
"We don't really travel in a community that knows the wealth of people," she says. And she prefers not to even try.
"It's disrespectful to the friend. To me, that's a spiritual thing."
Each of the charities will get about $1 million to $2 million. The recipients include a food bank, a women's center, a group for the blind and three universities.
The city — and the entire county of 280,000 — could clearly use the money.
Erie was once a bustling iron and steel town, and later also made machinery, plastics, paper and furniture. But many factories eventually closed or moved overseas. The paper mill, which employed more than 2,000 people in the 1950s, shut down in 2002 after more than 100 years in business.
The city has a growing service industry and has tried to remake itself as a tourist destination with a new slots casino. But its poverty rate is about 19 percent, or twice the national average, median household income is $31,196, versus $48,451 nationally, and as of 2006, it had an estimated 400 homeless people.
"What a godsend for some of these agencies, because I know a lot of them struggle," says Pam VanHorn, as her 5-year-old autistic daughter, Abigail, rides a scooter-like contraption at a playroom at the Achievement Center.
Some charity officials fear that other people will see the large donation and decide their small contributions aren't needed.
But Batchelor says that's not what Anonymous Friend intended at all.
"I know that the donor hopes this will inspire others to give within their means," he said.