Obituaries

Grace Cyr, at 94; foster mother to 98 children

Kayla, who cannot walk or talk, but communicates through sign language, showed her love for Mrs. Cyr (left) with frequent smiles and hugs.
BILL BRETT FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/FILE 2010
Kayla, who cannot walk or talk, but communicates through sign language, showed her love for Mrs. Cyr (left) with frequent smiles and hugs.

Lisa Gagnon was 8 when she was removed from her family’s home because of neglect. While awaiting adoption, she went to live in Somerville, where her foster mother was Grace Cyr.

“I was so lucky,” said Gagnon, who is now 46 and lives in Weare, N.H., where she is married and the mother of two. Mrs. Cyr, known to all as Gracie, welcomed Gagnon and gave her a room of her own, plus a sense of peace and security she hadn’t known.

Although Gagnon was adopted a year after arriving at Mrs. Cyr’s house, the transition was rough. When she was 16, she asked a social worker: “Can you please call my foster mother, Gracie?” In intervening years, Mrs. Cyr had been widowed, remarried, and moved to Billerica. When the social worker called, she agreed instantly to take in Gagnon again.

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“I showed up at Gracie’s door, and she hugged me,” said Gagnon, who lived in Mrs. Cyr’s home until she turned 23 and remained close over the years. “It was like I’d never left.”

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Mrs. Cyr, who became a foster parent 49 years ago and had cared for 98 children, died of heart failure May 28. She was 94 and lived in Billerica, where she was still caring for 24-year-old Kayla, who has cerebral palsy and was 5 when she arrived at Mrs. Cyr’s home.

As a foster parent, Mrs. Cyr often cared for multiple children, including many with complicated medical needs. They joined whoever of Mrs. Cyr’s daughters were living at home, along with grandchildren. For a time, she fostered three children under age 6, all of whom required wheelchairs.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff File/2010
For the past few years, Grace Cyr took care of Kayla, who cannot walk or talk.

For the past few years she cared only for Kayla, who cannot walk or talk. She communicates through sign language and shows her love with frequent smiles and hugs.

“Kayla has a wonderful life,” said Mrs. Cyr’s daughter Pamela Galaid of Billerica, who intends to continue helping her stepfather, Frank Cyr, care for Kayla. “We just plan to carry on my mother’s mission.”

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Mrs. Cyr and her first husband, Gordon DeCoste, who was known as Gus, became foster parents in 1966 at the suggestion of a daughter who was fostering a child. With three of their five daughters married and out of the house, there was room to spare. Initially, Mrs. Cyr took in babies awaiting adoption, most about 4 days old, her daughter said.

“When a call from the agency, my parents would get all dressed up, head into Boston, and come home with a bundle,” Pamela said.

Eventually, Mrs. Cyr began taking in foster children of all ages through The Home for the Little Wanderers in Boston.

“These kids come with a real level of complexity,” said Joan Wallace-Benjamin, the organization’s president and chief executive. “It takes a unique and special person to care for them.”

At 65, Mrs. Cyr took a course at Boston Children’s Hospital, to learn to manage intravenous and feeding tubes. Foster parents receive a stipend to cover expenses, but over the years, Mrs. Cyr went above and beyond financially and emotionally, her family said.

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Instead of taking advantage of annual respite time she was due, she brought her foster children along on family vacations to New Hampshire. “I couldn’t relax knowing someone else was taking care of them,” she told the Globe in 2010.

That same year, The Home for Little Wanderers honored Mrs. Cyr at its annual fund-raiser. An audience of 950 greeted her with a standing ovation. “One thing I will say,” she told them. “You don’t have to conceive them to love them.”

Born in Charlestown, Grace Frances Ryan graduated from high school with dreams of becoming a nurse, but her family couldn’t afford it. In 1932, she married DeCoste and they settled in Somerville. He died of cancer in 1980.

Four years later, she married Frank Cyr, a widower who told the Globe in 2010 that she said: “ ‘I’ll marry you on one condition. You have to love my foster children as your own.’ And it worked out.”

“She got lucky because she found two wonderful men,” Mrs. Cyr’s daughter said.

Mrs. Cyr dressed stylishly, even for a trip to the supermarket, and made sure the children in her care were well turned out, too. “She loved the nicer things in life,” her daughter said. “She was the perfect lady: never drank, never smoked, never swore.”

A tireless housekeeper, Mrs. Cyr was known for her sparkling chandeliers. At 87, she wallpapered a bathroom.

Pamela’s daughter Jessica of Billerica spent much of her childhood at her grandmother’s house. “I was an only child, but it never felt like I was,” she said. “We have tons of pictures of me with all different kids who were living with my nana.”

Jessica, who recently graduated from nursing school, said her grandmother was upbeat, hard-working, and “never boring, ever. She made everything fun.” She turned chores into games with stickers and brownies doled out as rewards. “I don’t know how she did it,” Jessica said. “But she always got up at 5 to put on her face, her outfit, and her high heels.”

A service has been held for Mrs. Cyr, who in addition to her husband, daughter, and granddaughter leaves four other daughters, Debra Lemack and Patricia Perry, both of Billerica, Marie Rose of West Medford, and Grace Spellenberg of Somerville; two stepsons, Jay of Manchester, N.H., and Frank of Florida; a brother, Charles Ryan of Amherst, N.H.; 10 other grandchildren; and many great-grandchildren.

Approaching Mrs. Cyr with problems was easy, said Gagnon. “Gracie would hear me out,” she said. “And then she would say, ‘OK, no more crying. We’re going to figure out a way through this.’ ” And they did, always over a cup of tea.

“She tried to guide me, but she always let me be myself,” Gagnon said. “And she always told me, ‘Lisa, I always knew you would be fine. All you needed was a good home.’ ”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmck66@verizon.net.