KEANSBURG, NJ – If love, friendship, and personality were the measure of wealth, then Frank Ditta died the richest man in the world. Residents of the Laurel Bay Health and Rehabilitation Center showed that at a moving celebration of his life held at the Laurel Ave. facility Wednesday afternoon as more than 50 residents and other friends gathered to pay final respects to the 71-year-old who died Nov. 27.
Frankie, as he was affectionately known, wasn’t particularly known for anything spectacular. He never held a powerful position in politics, business, or education. In fact, he never made a single headline, and didn’t even always have a good life. Nobody is exactly sure what Frankie did before he was surrounded by friendship at the care center. He worked on an assembly line someplace, someone said.
Frankie was mentally challenged, had no family, and had been severely abused by a former state-appointed guardian several years ago. But he had befriended a young woman, Jacqueline Hillmann, who worked at Peter’s Bait and Tackle shop at the Atlantic Highlands Yacht Harbor some years ago. Jackie said Frankie used to come in and talk and was always happy and smiling. So when things went terribly wrong with the guardian he had taking care of his life’s affairs, resulting in Frankie being hospitalized and once recovered, no longer able to take care of himself, it was Jackie who agreed to be his guardian and oversee his financial needs and care. It was also Jackie who visited him frequently at Laurel Bay once he was established there for care and friendship and where he shared a room with another resident. And it was Jackie who knew how much all the other residents loved Frankie and loved his morning stops at each door to say hello and leave every resident looking forward to another day with a bigger smile and a joke to remember.
Frankie was at Jackie and Robert Hillman’s house for Thanksgiving, enjoying the day with a family who clearly loved him. That night, according to the residents, after Frankie came home, he made his usual rounds of all the rooms, then went into his own room. Minutes later, his roommate called out for help. Something had happened to Frankie. Doreen Liebeck, a resident at the home for 18 years and president of its Residents Council, heard the call for help and also called for staff members. They came running, took emergency measures before the First Aid arrived, then all said some silent prayers when Frankie was taken to the hospital. Despite all efforts, Frankie Ditta died at Riverview three days later apparently from cardiac failure.
With no family and no funds for extravagances, Jackie knew she had to do something so Frankie’s friends could pay their final respects. “I didn’t know how I could get all the residents to the funeral home,” she said quietly, “so I just wanted to have something here for them to celebrate Frankie’s life.”
It was a beautiful celebration. The picture posters that showed Frankie among his friends, always smiling, always with one of his beloved stuffed animals in his arms, brought out memories residents wanted to share. The collection of Frankie’s hats made residents chuckle and recall the events at which he wore them…Halloween parties, Valentine’s Day, Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. The medals he always wore around his neck elicited more memories…Frankie had won them in Special Olympics competitions, residents said.
The Rev. Matt A. Thiringer, pastor of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Keyport, came to comfort residents in their loss, read several passages from the Bible and share stories. Mrs. Liebeck joined the minister in reciting the 23rd Psalm, and pretty soon, the entire group joined in saying it, followed by the Lord’s Prayer. Mrs. Liebeck spoke of how Frankie checked on her every morning, “and if he saw I wasn’t getting what I wanted, he’d get after someone and get me what I wanted. He was a good friend, he touched everyone’s heart, he was just so special. I’ll miss him,” she added sadly.
Nurses and aides felt the same way and shared similar feelings and memories. “I was his nurse from the time he came four years ago,” said Giovanna Gallo, a nurse from Middletown. “He was always happy, I loved him, he always made me laugh.”
Michelle Richardson of Keyport, the registered nurse who was unit manager for Frankie’s section at the care center added, “He was just lovable, you had to love everything about him. He would tell everyone he loved them, every day.” Cassandra Robinson of Keansburg laughed in recalling “He called me his cookie; I was his aide for three years, and he would always laugh with me about the water for his showers. It was always either too hot, or too cold, it was never right.” But like everyone else, Cassandra knew it was just Frankie’s way of sharing some friendship through light banter.
After the formal Bible readings, the prayers together, the memories shared, nurses and aides served pie and coffee to the residents before each returned to his own room, each feeling a little better, a little happier, a little more involved, for sharing memories of a special friend, all holding the prayer card recalling his life. Frankie had arrived at Laurel Bay on Christmas Eve four years ago; he left it for the hospital where he subsequently died on Thanksgiving Eve, as if to say how grateful he was for his time with friends.
Frankie was cremated and will be buried alongside his parents in a Bergen County cemetery.