Margaret "Maggie" Lyons, a woman of resilience and purpose who survived a devastating early illness and dedicated herself to improving the lives of young people, died Tuesday of cancer, her family said. She was 80.
Mrs. Lyons used braces, crutches and an electric wheelchair to get around since polio paralyzed her lower body as a teenager. But she moved through life with an iron will, a soft spot for people facing challenges and a determination to serve others.
After raising six children in Sacramento, she enrolled at UC Davis and earned a second bachelor's degree in 1987. She volunteered at St. HOPE Academy, where she rode two buses every day to work with disadvantaged children after school. She bought gifts and and hosted St. HOPE families for dinner in her home at Christmas and Thanksgiving.
"Maggie was an incredibly passionate person with a giant heart," St. HOPE founder and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson said.
Mrs. Lyons was a leader in efforts to open Ronald McDonald House at UC Davis Medical Center for out-of-town families of children receiving treatment. She visited with raw dough to bake fresh cookies for guests and helped establish the Cookie Brigade volunteer program.
Born in Sacramento on July 30, 1933, Margaret Mary Cavanaugh learned about public service at home. She was one of four children of Bartley W. Cavanaugh, a prominent Sacramento city manager from 1946 to 1964. An athletic girl who skied, played tennis and beat all the neighborhood kids in foot races, she graduated from St. Francis High School in 1951.
Days before she was set to start college, she was hospitalized with polio amid an epidemic that swept the United States in the early 1950s and also afflicted her brother Bartley. With her diaphragm and legs paralyzed, doctors prepared an iron lung and said she would never walk again. But after several months at the treatment facility in Warm Springs, Ga., established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she returned home walking with double leg braces and crutches.
She graduated from Dominican College in San Rafael, taught kindergarten at St. Mary's School in east Sacramento and married James L. Lyons, a police officer, in 1956. She volunteered at St. Patrick's Home for Children and was an active parent at California Middle School in Sacramento while raising her family at home.
"She was absolutely invested in her children and other people's children," said her son James.
Mrs. Lyons influenced many neighborhood kids who followed her children home after school. A warm, fun and compassionate woman who listened and encouraged, she inspired young people to look beyond present challenges.
"She never let you feel sorry for yourself," said California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who sought her advice on applying for college aid. "There's a lot of drama when you're a teenager, but she would tell us to suck it up and move on. She was a force of nature."
Mrs. Lyons' husband died in 2005. She is survived by her children Corie Isbell, James, Margaret, Jacqueline Jang, Joseph and John; two sisters, Mildred Cavanaugh and Ponnie Cavanaugh; a brother, Bart Cavanaugh; and 14 grandchildren.
A Rosary is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday at George L. Klumpp Chapel of Flowers, 2691 Riverside Blvd., Sacramento. A funeral Mass is set for 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Rose Catholic Church, 5961 Franklin Blvd., Sacramento.
Memorial donations may be made to Ronald McDonald House Charities Northern California at www.rmhcnc.org.
Call The Bee's Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @bob_davila.