She showed up at the same time each year.
An enigmatic woman would drop off a couple of brand new backpacks at the front office at .
It was like this for about a decade.
“We’d give them to the children that need them,” third-year principal Kathy Bogataj said. “She stopped bringing them in a couple years ago. She had never given her name when she came in.”
The Backpack Lady, as she became known, passed away July 10 after a 20-year struggle with emphysema and multiple sclerosis. She was 67.
Her family knew her as Phyllis L. Ditro. She was an Italian Catholic from Philadelphia.
“We’d always eat her spaghetti and meatballs,” her 16-year-old grandson Jordan Ditro recalled.
Her son, Rob Ditro, 44, said his mother lived a block away of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, although she wasn’t especially involved in church activities and, to his knowledge, didn’t attend Mass regularly.
He doesn’t know why she donated backpacks or why she chose that school. Both his sons went to the school, but only for a couple of years.
“She never told me,” he said. Rob said he only learned of his mother’s annual donation because he recognized two backpacks he had seen lying around at her house when he went into the front office to pay tuition several years ago. He didn’t think much of it at the time.
She was the stoic type, Rob said, rarely letting her softer side show. Phyllis’ husband, Robert Ditro, died in 2007. And during the last two years of her illness, times weren’t exactly happy. It affected her mood, and family relationships grew tense.
It is his mother’s generous, anonymous acts Rob clings to for healing and memorializing her legacy.
“I didn’t want to mourn the way I mourned my dad," he said. “That was kind of sad.”
He wanted something positive to remember about his mother. The recollection of those two backpacks in the front office at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School struck him. Why not keep her good deed going?
He posted a Facebook status request for backpack donations before his mother's July 18 memorial service.
“I expected maybe 10 backpacks," he said.
Now they cover a pool table inside his home. He’s up to 41 and he knows of at least 15 more on the way.
Bogataj said the school's $5,100 annual cost of tuition doesn’t mean there's no need among students.
“There’s a perception that children who attend Catholic school come from affluent families,” she said, but lots of students come on scholarship and from struggling families. She said the school also partners with an organization that provides items for children in foster care.
Backpacks will be dispersed primarily to Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School and Skycrest Elementary in Clearwater, where Rob's sister-in-law works.
Want to donate?
Send new backpacks or checks made payable to “The Backpack Lady Fund” to: 501 S. Paula Drive, Dunedin, FL, 34698
Or e-mail Rob Ditro.
[Updated 9:34 p.m., July 26, 2011]