updated 11/13/2007 12:36:11 PM ET 2007-11-13T17:36:11

The heads of 46 charities in this once-bustling iron and steel city were invited to one-on-one meetings to personally hear the news. On a small table nearby sat a box of tissues.

The tears began to flow — and the mystery began — when they learned that a donor had given a staggering $100 million to the Erie Community Foundation, and all of the charities would receive a share.

In this struggling old industrial city of 102,000, the donor is known only as "Anonymous Friend."

Mike Batchelor, president of the Erie Community Foundation, has been sworn to secrecy and will say 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 said. 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 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," said 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 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 city's poverty rate is about 19 percent, or twice the U.S. average, median household income is $31,196, vs. $48,451 nationally, and as of 2006, it had an estimated 400 homeless people.

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. Cancilla clutched a balled-up tissue and fought back tears as she talked about the gift.

She said 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 said. 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 between $1 million and $2 million. The recipients include a food bank, a women's center, a group for the blind and three universities.

Some charity officials fear that other people will see the large donation and decide their small contributions are not needed. But Batchelor said that is not what Anonymous Friend intended at all: "I know that the donor hopes this will inspire others to give within their means."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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