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Erie's $100 million windfall 46 nonprofits in Buffalo's Rust Belt neighbor to benefit

Some call him the "Anonymous Friend." Others refer to him as "The Donor." One woman says he is an angel sent from heaven.

But all agree he is just about the best friend that Erie, or perhaps any city, has ever had.

This "friend" anonymously donated $100 million to this city of 102,000 on the Lake Erie shore. It's an extraordinary gift that residents say has the potential to transform Erie physically and psychologically.

"It's overwhelming. The donor has an incredible sense of pride for the community. That is evident," said Melinda Meyer, acting director of the Erie County (Pa.) Historical Society.

Many leaders of the nonprofit agencies that will share the gift broke down in tears when the Erie Community Foundation's president revealed their good fortune to them.

"Our jaws just dropped and my mouth stayed open for about five minutes. It was very emotional. I got teary-eyed," said Kitty Cancilla, executive director of an Erie homeless shelter that will receive $2 million.

The gift might have inspired a little jealousy just up Interstate 90, but most in Buffalo only wish the recipients in Erie well.

"I thought it was outstanding. I thought it was a great story. You don't often hear about $100 million gifts. This is in the big leagues," said Edward Schneider, University at Buffalo Foundation executive director.

Word of the substantial donation has drawn international attention to the Lake Erie port city, and the story was displayed prominently on Internet news sites this week.

The donor's desire for anonymity has only generated more interest in the story, but most here say they want to respect the donor's request even as speculation on the name swirls.

"Everybody's trying to be as respectful as they can for the wish of anonymity, but also trying to satisfy their own, personal curiosity," Erie Mayor Joseph E. Sinnott said.

In Buffalo, the philanthropic community can only imagine what a gift of that size could do for their city.

"It's certainly a significant donation, but the needs in our community are certainly significant," said Clotilde Dedecker, president and chief executive officer of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.

Mike Batchelor, president of the Erie Community Foundation, the organization distributing the donation, is tight-lipped about many details of the story behind the $100 million gift.

He began talking to the donor about a sizable gift a number of years ago.

The largest previous gift to the foundation was $6 million, so this donation was on a different scale.

The donor had decided where to direct the money, and Batchelor this summer began notifying the selected organizations.

He invited representatives from the groups one at a time to the foundation's headquarters, sat them in a small room next to his office and broke the news.

"It's not something you do in a letter," Batchelor said.

Erie, like Buffalo, is sensitive to its perception among outsiders as a stagnant community.

"Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland -- it's easy to get a little down in the mouth about the Rust Belt and industry moving away," said Thomas J. Gamble, president of Mercyhurst College, a private liberal arts college in Erie that will receive about $2 million.

Erie, again like Buffalo, now is trying to revive its downtown, leverage its waterfront and rebuild an economy rooted in higher education and high-tech companies.

"I think [the gift] helps keep the city alive a little bit. . . . Because there's no tax base. Everybody's fighting for money," said Albert DeLuca, who works at downtown's State News and Variety Store.

Forty-six Erie-area nonprofit organizations in all will receive between $1 million and $2 million each from the donation, Batchelor said. The rest will go to the foundation and out-of-town recipients.

There are no restrictions on how recipients spend the money, though the donor, through Batchelor, urged them to set up endowments.

Out-of-town reporters seem to be more interested than Erie residents in solving the mystery of the anonymous donor.

Batchelor won't even reveal the donor's gender or whether the donor is living or dead.

If residents knew the donor's identity, "We might have renamed the city for them," said Kim Green, director of economic and community development for the City of Erie.

Speculation on the identity has bubbled out on the Web.

There just aren't that many people with a connection to Erie who could donate that much money, observers said.

Two people familiar with the donation told The News that they know the identity of the donor. But all they would say is he is male and no longer living.

Visitors to a blog operated by Peter Panepento, a former Erie journalist and current employee of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, suspect the donor is F. William Hirt.

Hirt, who died in July, was longtime president and CEO of Erie Insurance Group, a Fortune 500 company, and was an active member of the Erie community for decades.

A few sleuths on the blog pointed out that Hirt and his wife, Audrey, had connections to a number of organizations that will benefit from the gift.

That's just a guess, of course, and Cancilla, the director of the homeless shelter, said that worrying too much about the donor's identity misses the point of the generous gift.

"I really feel that the wish of the friend is something that's very, I'll say sacred," she said. "I feel as though I know as much as I need to know about the individual."


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