No one mistakes the hills of Leominster for the Swiss Alps or compares a chilly Massachusetts morning to the cold Arctic air, but Mary Cronin nevertheless made use of trails and climate near her home to train for travels around the world.
“She never did the, ‘I’m going to go see Paris or London,’” said her friend Martha Klette of Leominster. “She never did the mundane things. It was always something very exotic.”
Instead of French cafes and British tea, Mrs. Cronin chose a safari in Tanzania and camping on Canada’s Baffin Island above the Arctic Circle as she accomplished her goal of setting foot on all seven continents in retirement.
Mrs. Cronin, who helped finance her travels by altering gowns, prom dresses, and other clothes, died of complications of dementia Dec. 23 in Apple Valley Center in Ayer, where she went to stay at the beginning of August. She was 86 and had lived in Leominster for nearly 50 years.
“I think she always wanted to travel,” said her son, John Jr. of Ghent, N.Y. “It sort of defined her and gave her a sense of who she really was.”
Mrs. Cronin traveled on her own and, before leaving, froze enough dinners to feed her husband while she was away.
John Cronin Sr., who died in 2001, “had no interest in going anywhere,” their son said. “He did all his traveling in the second World War, and he was happy to sit in the driveway and wave to the neighbors.”
When Mrs. Cronin waved, it was to bid farewell as she left to hike up the Alps, float in a hot air balloon over the Serengeti in Africa, or sail on a Russian icebreaker from Argentina to Antarctica, where she and other passengers slid down a chute to a landing craft that ferried them ashore.
“She really wanted that adventure,” said Ellen Donaldson of Lancaster, a friend who was one of Mrs. Cronin’s hiking partners around Leominster. “She’d talk about camping above the Arctic Circle and how it would be so cold outside, but she would be so perfectly warm in her sleeping bag that she could melt a pot of ice.”
Kathy Patry of Lunenburg, another hiking friend, said Mrs. Cronin habitually picked the most challenging trails in Leominster.
“Sometimes it would be a hot day or the mosquitoes would be out,” Patry recalled, “and she’d say, ‘Let’s continue on.’ ”
Using her seamstress skills, Mrs. Cronin made mosquito nets with drawstrings for companions to pull over their heads on buggy days.
“She always liked to pick the trails with the steepest inclines,” Patry said. “No matter what it took, she would push her way up there. She was determined that no matter how old she was, she was going to get up those trails.”
Mrs. Cronin was the second of three daughters born to John Doucette and the former Catherine Serrell.
Her family lived in the Bronx, N.Y., where her father was a steeplejack who was among the iron workers on projects including Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building.
When she was a girl, her family moved to Waterbury, Conn., where she graduated from Waterbury Catholic High School and attended the University of Connecticut, before leaving to work for a candy company.
One snowy evening in the late 1940s, she met John Cronin on a New York City street as she was getting into her car to drive to Waterbury. Worried about her well-being in the storm, he followed her home and then returned to New York. They met again a few years later and married in 1952.
“She always said she married him because he was a gentleman,” their son said.
The Cronins moved to Lunenburg in 1957 and to Leominster in 1963, on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
When the children were old enough that Mrs. Cronin could work outside her home, her jobs included teaching physical education to schoolgirls in Fitchburg and Leominster, working as head cashier at the Leominster Sears, and helping to run a dental office’s business affairs.
Long before either pursuit was fashionable, Mrs. Cronin championed fitness and health food, sometimes amid skepticism at home.
“My dad would joke about it sometimes,” her son said. “He’d come home and say, ‘What’s for dinner, toasted pine cones?’ ”
Into her 80s, she kept an exercise schedule that was the envy of those much younger.
“She used to swim a mile every day up until three years ago,” said Jack Klette, who is Martha’s husband and works at the Orchard Hills Athletic Club in Lancaster, where Mrs. Cronin swam. “She used to tell me she’d get out of bed and do a half hour or more of exercises before she started her day.”
“She was quite the gal, really and truly,” Martha said. “And she was so pretty.”
In addition to her son, Mrs. Cronin leaves a daughter, Beverly, an editorial news designer at the Globe who lives in Leominster; two sisters, Jean Burke of Noank, Conn., and Catherine Ale of Ulster Park, N.Y.; and five grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 11:30 a.m. Jan. 19 in St. Leo’s Church in Leominster.
Mrs. Cronin, who photographed kangaroos in Australia and went bungee jumping in New Zealand, “was probably one of the most determined people I’ve met,” her son said. “I learned from her more than from anybody that you can do whatever you want to do.”
Even after moving to assisted living, Mrs. Cronin gave her walker a workout.
“We would try to get out and walk around the park next door, and she would always push harder than she should,” Donaldson said. “She was up for it always.”