Romano: The impact of a life never to be forgotten

Beth’s Closet is named for Beth Dillinger, the daughter of Bob and Kay Dillinger.
Beth’s Closet is named for Beth Dillinger, the daughter of Bob and Kay Dillinger.
Published May 14, 2017

Sometimes, when they didn't know she was there, Kay Dillinger would hear them talk.

Their words were not unkind, nor were they incorrect. They just lacked the necessary perspective.

They would be walking the halls of the PACE school for girls in Pinellas County, and some young lady leading the tour would stop to explain about the room known as Beth's Closet.

"There was this lady,'' the tour guide would say, "and her daughter committed suicide . . .''

That was all anyone seemed to know, and Kay understood that. The Beth Dillinger Foundation had been created in honor of her daughter's memory, but the focus had always been about moving forward rather than looking back. There were children in need, and loads of work to be done.

Ten years later, the foundation is feeding more than 1,100 chronically hungry schoolchildren every weekend. Scholarships have been awarded to nearly 200 underprivileged high school graduates. Clothes, diapers and other necessities have been provided at Beth's Corner and Beth's Closet.

It's true that, for the first few years of the foundation's annual fashion show/luncheon, Kay would not even allow a photo of Beth in the room for fear that she and husband Bob, the Pinellas-Pasco public defender, would dissolve into tears.

But last week, she decided, the time had come for Beth to reclaim her own legacy.

"Here we are in Year 10, and we have a lot of the same people who come year after year in support, and they never knew Beth,'' Kay said before last week's luncheon. "It's time for them to know her better.

"It doesn't need to be, 'Beth Dillinger, the girl who committed suicide.' It should be, 'Boy, have you heard what the Beth Dillinger Foundation is doing?' ''

• • •

The fashion show begins with a dress from Ross. Or is it Marshalls?

The designer doesn't matter and neither does the cost. The point today is compassion rather than fashion. The teenagers on the runway were once dropouts and drug abusers. Homeless and defenseless.

Through the intervention of the PACE school, they have been given a new direction in their lives. And with the assistance of the Beth Dillinger Foundation, they have been given an afternoon to primp, strut and shine with the exuberance a supermodel could never imagine.

This is largely where the foundation began. With Kay and her friend Cat Coats clearing all the trendy and expensive clothes out of Beth's closet and bringing them to PACE for the girls to have.

From there, Beth's Closet would grow for 10 years until the foundation has now raised more than $1.5 million from the community, and another $1 million in matching funds. The mission has expanded from clothes to food to educational opportunities and life's other essentials.

And on Wednesday, for the first time, a group of young ladies from PACE heard the story of the woman whose name has graced it all.

After a video montage of photos of Beth from birth to adulthood, three of her friends told the crowd of 400 about the cheerleader and homecoming princess from Boca Ciega High. About nights when the laughter bounced off the walls of her room. About friends coming to Beth's house to raid her closet. About Beth running miles on Treasure Island, and then finishing off her workout with pizza and yogurt.

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What the crowd did not hear is that Beth would have appreciated and empathized with the girls from PACE. That for all the advantages she had in her world, she often seemed haunted. That she typically identified with life's underdogs. And that the foundation that bears her name seeks to help all the children Beth probably would have noticed before the rest of us.

"She had a great personality,'' her mother said. "She was beautiful, she was kind.

"Everybody wanted to be Beth, except Beth.''

• • •

Not all of the girls at PACE turn into stories of success, and not all of the hungry children in Tampa Bay can count on being fed. But recognizing that is not the same as accepting it.

And so Kay and Bob Dillinger continue to push ahead. Every year, it seems, they find needs that are not being met, and venture into the community to ask for new levels of support.

More than a decade has passed since they lost their only child when she was 32, and that pain remains precariously hidden under a thin veneer. This was the year when Kay finally felt secure enough to reintroduce Beth to the Tampa Bay community, but the mission is still to look ahead.

"There are so many wonderful charities out there that people could give their time and money for, and so it means the world to me that they have trust and faith in the foundation,'' Kay said. "It's been a gift to me to have it in Beth's name. If I can't have her, this is the second-best thing.''