For son's birthday, 'Brian's mom' starts day of free meals

East Lyme — On a normal day, a plate of four chocolate chip pancakes dusted with powdered sugar at The Shack costs $8.49.

But dozens of local diners got their pancakes free Saturday — and a pay-it-forward scheme gave a free lunch to even more — after a woman left a note and $100 and signed it only “Brian’s mom.”

“She looked familiar, but … she kind of came up on me fast,” said Jeremy Han, one of The Shack’s owners.

He was managing the East Lyme location when he found himself holding $100 and a note on a piece of loose-leaf paper.

“All of a sudden, she was gone, just as fast,” Han said.

He took the note into a back room to read it, and almost cried.

“Please use the enclosed money to pay for some customers’ breakfast plates this morning,” the note read. “The Shack was one of my son’s favorite places to eat … Today would have been his 24th birthday. Since we can’t celebrate with him please help me share his love and his birthday with others.”

The restaurant obliged. All morning, chocolate chip pancakes and hash — Brian’s favorite foods on the menu — were free for anyone who ordered them.

As Han told the story, the money from “Brian’s mom” kept coming back in. Soon, diners at all three The Shack locations, in East Lyme, Waterford and Groton, were paying their bills anyway.

By the end of the Saturday, Han put out a call on Facebook. With all the money people had donated, anyone named Brian could get free pancakes or hash.

“Brian’s mom” never expected the birthday celebration for her son to go so far.

The mystery donor was Ann Dagle. Her son Brian Dagle, an East Lyme High School graduate, died in 2011 by suicide. He was 19.

Dagle, her husband Paul, and Brian's brothers have become advocates for suicide prevention in the years since, starting a foundation to encourage conversation about mental health and to connect people who are grieving.

Dagle said she has struggled with how to mark Brian’s birthday each April 2.

“Typically, that’s a very difficult day for us,” she said. “I never know from one moment to the next what I’m really able to do that day.”

On Saturday, an idea crossed her mind.

“Just on a whim, I thought, ‘What would he be doing this morning?’” she said. “He’d probably be having a ‘Shack attack' breakfast.”

Chocolate chip pancakes and corned beef hash at The Shack, that is.

Brian Dagle played lacrosse and football. The teams would often come to The Shack before games for “Shack attacks.”

“I can remember sitting at The Shack, and him having these gooey, gooey chocolate chip pancakes,” Dagle said.

Dagle said the restaurant reminds her of her son, and she wanted to spend his birthday with those good times in mind.

“I did it selfishly, for me,” she said. “I didn’t even tell my family. I didn’t even tell anyone I did it.”

The gesture was anything but selfish, Han said.

“We were just blown away by the lady’s kindness,” he said. “That’s one of the hardest things you have to do, is lose a child.”

Michael Deane, of Colchester, finished lunch with his two daughters, his brother and his parents at The Shack’s Waterford store Saturday when the manager told them their bill would be free thanks to “Brian’s mom.”

“It was a very nice gesture,” Deane said. “It snowballed into something so big, they were probably trying to burn through the donation money.”

The family donated some money to the restaurant anyway, to pay for someone else’s meal, but the moment stayed in their minds for the rest of the day.

“Even today, we were still talking about it,” Deane said Sunday.

Reactions to The Shack’s Facebook post and her gesture have stayed in Dagle’s mind, too.

“Every time I thought about the people going and having chocolate chip pancakes, and saw all the nice comments on Facebook, it just kind of made the day a little softer for me,” she said.

m.shanahan@theday.com

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