In 1959, Mary Malone Sullivan wanted a summer house on Cape Cod. Her husband, Billy, wanted a football team.
She put her dreams on hold and the family sank its savings into founding the Boston Patriots American Football League franchise, launching the team that played on fields around the city before finding a home in Foxborough and becoming the New England Patriots.
“She was a lovely lady,” former Patriots’ quarterback Steve Grogan said yesterday. “The first word I think of when I think of her is class. She had a lot of class.”
Mrs. Sullivan, a philanthropist and volunteer reading tutor, eventually got the Cape house of her dreams, with a breathtaking view of the sea in Cotuit and a grand piano she played for her family. She died in that home Sunday of complications from a stroke at 92.
“During the early days of the Patriots, it was a startup business and it was never a sure thing,” said her son Charles of New York City. “We had some difficult times but she was always supportive of my dad and always encouraging of him. She was a Rock of Gibraltar.”
Her husband, a Lowell native and scrappy businessman who died in 1998 at 82, was “the macro guy,” focused on the big ideas while Mrs. Sullivan concentrated on details.
“That was critical to his success with all of these things,” Charles said.
She was a teenager growing up in Jamaica Plain when she met William H. Sullivan Jr. at a party.
“One of the candles on the table caught her dress sleeve,” said her daughter Jean Sullivan McKeigue of Jamaica Plain. “The legend is my father put it out and that was the beginning of the magnificent relationship.”
She graduated from Regis College in Weston, and they married in 1941. At the time, her husband worked in public relations for Boston College, and they spent their honeymoon traveling with the school’s undefeated football team to the Sugar Bowl. The Eagles won.
“My mother certainly had a glimpse of what was to come,” Jean said.
Friends remembered Mrs. Sullivan for her graciousness and ability to put others at ease.
“She was just one of these people who put a lot of energy into being nice to people and into being generous,” said US Representative Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat who was a close friend in the 1970s of her daughter Kathleen Sullivan Alioto of San Francisco.
Frank remained in touch with Mrs. Sullivan and she supported his campaigns.
“She was always friendly and asking about your family,” Grogan said, recalling team Christmas parties and cookouts. “Everybody in the front office knew everybody who played on the field. It was one big family, and that’s how Mary Sullivan and Billy wanted it to be.”
Mrs. Sullivan’s father was Dr. Charles Malone, an Irish immigrant. Her mother, the former Katherine Gildea of East Boston, died during gallbladder surgery when Mary was 16.
As a young woman, Mrs. Sullivan worked in her father’s clinic in Jamaica Plain, greeting patients who were accepted regardless of their ability to pay, her family said.
“The congenial people skills she had until the day of her passing she learned first in those days,” Charles said.
In addition to Charles, Jean, and Kathleen, Mrs. Sullivan leaves another daughter, Nancie Sullivan Chamberlain of Chestnut Hill; two other sons, William III of Boston and Patrick of Newton; 15 grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 9 a.m. Friday in Our Lady of Victory Church in Centerville. Burial will be in Mosswood Cemetery in Cotuit.
“She was a wonderful mother, devout to her faith,” Jean said. “She supported every one of us, listening to all our issues and trying to help work out problems.”
Mrs. Sullivan also was a key supporter of her husband’s work in helping launching the Jimmy Fund with a radio broadcast from the bedside of a sick child in 1948.
After her children were grown, Mrs. Sullivan earned a master’s degree in teaching from Boston University. She volunteered to teach students with learning disabilities in Brookline, Dorchester, and in Lake Worth, Fla., where she spent winters.
In 1981, the Sullivan home in Cotuit was featured in the Boston Globe’s Home and Gardens section with its Super Bowl basement room painted fire truck red and decorated with sports memorabilia.
Though the family sold the Patriots in 1988, and her husband died a decade later, Mrs. Sullivan never missed a game. She enjoyed playing bridge, socializing with friends, and family dinners, “but when the Patriots were on TV, she would say to her friends, ‘I have work to do,’ ” Charles said.
She was sad when the team lost the Super Bowl this year to the New York Giants, but was happy for her longtime friend Ann Mara, widow of Giants’ owner Wellington Mara.
In an interview yesterday, Ann Mara recalled many game days spent chatting with Mrs. Sullivan over the years. They visited each other’s box seat areas before and after the game.
“She was the sweetest, kindest lady,” Mara said. “She never had a bad word to say about anybody. She was a lovely woman, a great mother, and just an example to everyone. We will miss her.”