Family, friends share story of Kensington native Jason “Bubba” DiMartino to spread awareness, preserve legacy
By Melissa Komar
When Jason “Bubba” DiMartino was diagnosed with stage IV cholangiocarcinoma on Sept. 27, he had an army behind him.
Family and friends rallied to support him, organizing a fundraiser in January, Bubba’s Brigade, to offset treatment costs.
“When he got cancer, the first thing people wanted to do was help,” said Cathy DiMartino, Jason’s wife. “At Christmas, a family sponsored us and sent us gift cards. A former co-worker nominated him for a trip. And, he didn’t want people to feel like he was a charity case. He had a lot of pride.”
Melissa LeBender, DiMartino’s niece, started a GoFundMe to cover his sons’ education, and saw DiMartino as more of a sibling.
DiMartino was 13 when LeBender was born and the two lived in her grandfather’s house until she was 10 and then in her mom’s house for a few years.
“My uncle Jason, my mom’s brother, was a lot like a brother to me,” she said. “He and Cathy started dated when I was only 5. The two of them always let me tag along. We did a lot of fun things together, from trips to the aquarium and visits to the shore, but mostly just playing and swimming up at McVeigh.”
Like Cathy, LeBender knows her uncle would not have willingly accepted any funds, but would want his family taken care of.
“I created the GoFundMe because a few people had reached out to me about how to help. I knew Cathy and Jason wouldn’t want to take monetary contributions for [themselves], so I set it up with the boys in mind,” she said. “She and Jason worked really hard their entire lives to send the boys to Catholic school, and to pay for many extra-curricular activities. I don’t want Cathy to bear that financial burden alone. We’ve set the goal at $40,000 with Ciaran looking at six more years in Archdiocese schools, Connor off to public school for high school, and anticipated sports fees over the coming years. The money raised to date went directly to Ciaran’s 2018–2019 academic year.”
LeBender also gave DiMartino’s eulogy.
“I hope they remember his true altruism. He spent a huge portion of his life serving the communities he lived in,” she said. “I hope that people look to my uncle for inspiration and motivation. If we all had an one-eighth of his spirit for community, the world would be a better place.”
The 46-year-old grew up in Kensington at D and Westmoreland streets and spent most of his younger days at McVeigh Playground, lifeguarding and coaching.
“He was a real prankster. He loved to scare people. That was his thing,” Cathy DiMartino said. “And yet, if we were at a party, he’d sit back and watch everything. People would laugh and say he was the Godfather.”
At the Bubba’s Brigade benefit in January, a family member drew the same connection.
“She said to me, ‘These guys are coming up and kissing his hand, and I’m thinking, what is he, The Godfather?’ and I just laughed,” DiMartino said.
While he wasn’t in the mob business, he worked several jobs, making friends in every realm he entered.
He was a school police officer during the day and an assistant rec leader at night, most recently at Samuel Recreation Center in Port Richmond for nine years.
Jamie Miller, recreation leader and DiMartino’s supervisor and neighbor, experienced his pranks firsthand.
“Probably every day I worked, he got me with something or tried to,” she said, laughing. “I’ve had fake roaches, fake mice on the toilet seat, pens that shocked me. He put a whistler inside my exhaust pipe that sounded like a train whistle. And, one time, he pulled my car all the way down the block. And, I was panicking thinking someone stole my car. But, it was all so funny.”
She also saw his altruistic side.
“He’d bring me an iced tea when he worked and wouldn’t take my $2 for it. He’d fight with me over it,” Miller said. “He always had candy in his drawer for the kids. He’d wait until I got in my car at night and pull away. And, right now, we don’t really have someone filling his spot, and I don’t know that we really can have anyone fill his spot. People have come by and asked about him, and I never met them. He knew everyone.”
Outside of school and the rec, he DJed for benefits and parties and designed T-shirts.
“Kensington was his love,” DiMartino said, laughing. “Most people wouldn’t design their own T-shirt, but he loved making them, so he designed it. The back said, ‘Fight like a Kenzo.’ And, he was buried in a McVeigh shirt that he had designed.”
And while he wore his heart for Kensington on his sleeve, family was his true love.
Cathy DiMartino met her future husband in Wildwood in 1991. Her friend, Colleen, was dating Jason’s brother.
Cathy and Jason started dating in August and were quickly inseparable.
The couple married in October 1999, moved to Torresdale and had two sons, Connor, 14, and Ciaran, 11.
Trips to Wildwood and cruises would be frequent in the years to come.
“We actually had a cruise booked for Feb. 25, and obviously we had to cancel it. He died on the 24th,” DiMartino said. “As he passed, I told him, ‘Go catch that cruise.’
And while he didn’t get to take that last cruise, For Pete’s Sake Cancer Respite Foundation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to allow cancer patients and their families an opportunity “to take a break from cancer,” sent the DiMartinos on a trip to Florida in January.
The trip was a much-needed breath of fresh air.
“Once he got sick, he was just in the house,” DiMartino said. “That was the hardest thing for him, not being around everybody. He really wasn’t up to it. It’s a horrible, horrible cancer. No one wants to hear at 45 you have a rare, inoperable cancer that doesn’t have a lot of research.”
DiMartino pointed to other cancers that receive more attention.
“There’s so much money for cancers like breast cancer, and I’m not saying there shouldn’t be, just put some towards these ‘rare’ ones,” she said. “But how can you say it’s rare when there’s another guy around the same age and from the same area in the hospital with you who has it, too? I’ve since joined so many support groups for cholangiocarcinoma. And, there are so many other people dying from it. And, Jay’s not even the youngest.”
Volunteer coaching was another passion.
“Even when he was in the hospital, the kids would all come to see him,” DiMartino said. “The kids just really loved him. They would hug him and lay their heads on him. And, it just really broke me up.”
He started volunteer coaching as a teenager at McVeigh, became head of the athletic association at the rec center and became an employee at the rec in 1992.
“He coached T-ball, baseball, and a lot of the kids he recently coached in soccer, he coached their dads in baseball when they were young,” DiMartino said. “One of them just booked a soccer team for the Beach Blast in Wildwood and called it ‘Bubba’s Fireballs’ and a lot of the kids originally played for [Jason], including my son. He coached everything from rec teams to my son’s CYO teams.”
And while cancer may have physically sidelined DiMartino, it couldn’t contain his sense of humor.
“The day before he died, so many people came to see him and he was pranking people in the hospital,” DiMartino said. “There was a tube running from him across the floor and when people walked in and stepped on it, he would say, ‘You’re on my lifeline,’ And, at one point, he said that to his niece and acted like he died,’ And, it was just so funny. And, he was awake, just talking about old times.”
DiMartino hopes those memories encourage others to bring light to the disease that robbed Jason of making more.
“I just want there to be more awareness and research. The fact they could tell me in the hospital the things I could expect to happen to him, but nobody could tell us why he got it or where it came from, they need to find out the commonality among all these people getting it and why more and more young people are getting it,” she said.
To donate to the “Education fund for Bubba’s Boys,” visit www.gofundme.com/education-fund-for-bubba039s-boys.