By Sue Kiesewetter
Front desk… Phyllis.
It’s more than just a telephone greeting Phyllis Burpo gives when answering the phone at Mason High School.
Often shortened to FDP, the moniker has become a term of endearment first bestowed by assistant principal Bill Rice on the woman who many see as the face of Mason High School.
The California transplant has spent the past six years as receptionist at Ohio’s largest high school after working four years on the school’s security team. She oversees and schedules a team of volunteers who take shifts sitting with her at the hub of the high school.
“Phyllis is on the front lines. She greets every single person who enters our school – when they walk in, they meet her and that’s a lot of responsibility,’’ Rice says.
“She has her finger on the pulse of the school. What’s amazing to me, is how she keeps track of a million details,” adds parent volunteer Merle Coyle, who works alongside Burpo.
“She knows variations on schedules, which teachers are out – everything. She keeps it all straight and makes sure everything happens the way it’s supposed to.”
It is Burpo who took it upon herself to oversee the school’s lost and found, handles student work permits, makes sure everyone who enters signs in and gets a badge.
No one enters the building of more than 3,330 students without Burpo’s knowledge. On a slow to average day, that’s about 100 people; on a busy day double – or even triple, that.
“We ask a lot of her, especially when it comes to school safety. She truly understands the seriousness of that aspect of her job,” Rice says. “Next to the school principal she really is the face of Mason High School.”
But just as valued are Burpo’s people skills – both with teenagers and adults. She keeps a close eye on ‘her kids’ doling out hugs to an upset teen one minute, lending an ear to a second later in the day, before disciplining a third child.
“I just feel like I have the personality and heart to deal with all of them,’’ says Burpo, 60, who is single and has no children of her own. “I consider them all my kids.”
Outside the school day Burpo sells Avon and can be found at almost every home sporting event – football, volleyball, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, track – where she’s at the entrance taking tickets or working security.
Two years ago she received a Respect the Game state award from the Ohio High School Athletic Association for her efforts.
This season Burpo hasn’t been at her usual post at the football, soccer or volleyball games. She recently finished a series of 12 chemotherapy treatments after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in March, which has weakened her immune system.
Her faith in God, the support of her younger sister, Norma Burpo – who stays with her overnight on treatment days – and other family members; along with prayers and good wishes from the parents; students, staff and community, have kept her strong.
“My first thought was, ‘Why me?’ It was so hard to call my parents in California and tell them. I boohooed that night and then it was over and I said, ‘Let’s get this (treatment) done,’’’ Burpo said.
“I believe in the promise from God in the bible that he would take care of me.’’
So far, he has.
Burpo say her prognosis is good – she expects to be up to full strength by the start of winter sports. She’s had no bouts with nausea, didn’t lose eyebrows or nails and has missed only a day or two of work since her diagnosis.
“I am blessed by the support from people all around me. Their support and prayers, well, that’s all I need,” Burpo said. “The prayers keep going up and the blessings come down. I couldn’t do this without prayers.”
Her Hamilton Township home bears evidence to her faith. It is filled with angels, many on loan from Norma, who lives just a few miles away in Loveland, where both attend Loveland Christian Church.
“They’re watching over her,’’ her sister says of the angels. “She’s strong.”
After beginning to lose her hair following her second chemotherapy treatment last spring (2013), Burpo shaved her head and started wearing bandanas. That’s when students started asking questions. Always, she told them the truth.
Many in the community responded with offers of help, casseroles, prayers, and hugs – lots of hugs.
One such person was Coyle, who remembers the support she received when her now 19-year-old daughter Annie was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the sixth grade. Burpo was there to support her.
“She’s very strong-willed and determined it’s not going to beat her. She’s very strong…and it inspires people,’’ Coyle said. “Fortunately or unfortunately, we’ve supported each other. Even though this is a big school, it’s a strong, supportive school.”
A simple show of that support came in the form of bandanas. Teachers and staff members who beat cancer had a tradition of passing on their bandanas to someone newly diagnosed.
When Phyllis received them from a teacher who beat melanoma, they were put with ones Norma had purchased and decorated with shiny, ornamental shapes. All are kept in a cedar chest.
“I don’t have to fix my hair every day, but I do have to pick out my bandana,” Burpo quipped of her collection that has grown to more than two dozen. “I’m hoping my hair grows back brown and curly – not gray.”
One of the hardest lessons to learn, Burpo said, was slowing down and accepting help that was offered.
“It’s hard to be on the receiving end when you usually give,’’ Burpo said. “You learn to accept help.”
One of the offers of help came from 76-year-old Gilbert ‘Gibby’ Adkins, the husband of one of Burpo’s Avon clients, who is a breast cancer survivor. He’s been mowing her front and back yards this season – a more than 3-hour job.
“He’s got a heart as big as all of outdoors,’’ his wife, Carole, said. “He sees somebody that needs something done, he does it. That’s the way Gib is – he’s a better giver than taker.”
At first, Burpo said, it was difficult to accept his offer of help.
“It’s his blessing. I can’t take that from him,’’ Burpo said.
Others have helped with minor home repairs that Burpo normally would have done. It has allowed her to spend more time than usual on her front porch and patio without worry.
Burpo is reading more books, gardening less, doing more word searches and drinking iced tea. The two sisters have become even closer. They’ve enjoyed watching movies together – comedies are their favorite – following each chemotherapy session.
“We don’t take anything for granted,’’ Norma said. “We take one day at a time.”
Burpo said she relishes the stories of cancer survivors.
“I rely on them because I know I’m going to be one.”