Jean Sykes, 79, repaired toys for gifts for needy children

January 02, 1999|By Tom Pelton and SUN STAFF

Jean Sykes, who for 40 years was known as "Mrs. Santa Claus" because she repaired thousands of toys for needy children at Christmas, died of lung cancer Thursday at her home in Owings Mills. She was 79.

Using paintbrushes, drills and glue, Mrs. Sykes restored dolls, games and athletic equipment donated by local stores and civic organizations so the gifts could be distributed anonymously to families receiving public assistance in Baltimore County.

The Sun wrote articles about the "Toy Lady" in 1975 and 1993, although Mrs. Skyes was reluctant to be interviewed and disliked having her work publicized, according to family and friends.

"I don't think she ever received enough credit for all of the charitable work she did, but I don't think that's what she wanted. She didn't want anyone to pat her on the back," said Vicki Almond, the parish administrator at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Owings Mills.

She was born Jean Fleishman in Baltimore, the daughter of Joel Fleishman, a dentist, and Leona Fleishman, a teacher.

She graduated from Forest Park High School in Baltimore in 1937 and was married for 36 years to David Sykes, an attorney who died 2 1/2 years ago, family members said.

A meticulously organized woman with an outgoing personality and a zeal for volunteer work, Mrs. Sykes donated her time not just repairing toys but also teaching family planning for the Baltimore County Health Department.

But her greatest love for charity work arose during the holiday season. Beginning in the 1950s, Mrs. Sykes would transform her basement into a warehouse for old stuffed animals, baby rattles, books and toys.

"My friends used to love to come to my house, because they always had thousands of toys to play with -- many more than they had at their own homes," said Mrs. Sykes' daughter, Ann Rogers Foster of London. "If we put together puzzles, it was to make sure all the pieces were there for other children."

Mrs. Sykes would throw out toy guns and anything that looked as if it might promote violence. Like one of Santa's elves, she would select toys appropriate for boys and girls of different ages. Lists of children were provided by the county's Department of Social Services of recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

The gifts were distributed by nonprofit organizations including the Reisterstown Kiwanis Club and the Reisterstown Jaycees.

In recognition of her generosity, the Reisterstown Lions Club named her Citizen of the Year in 1989.

"I always marveled at Jean," said Francis Crone, 82, a longtime friend of Mrs. Sykes' from Baltimore. "She had such an empathy for the people she helped."

Wendy Sykes Mopsik, a stepdaughter of Mrs. Sykes', said: "She was an old-fashioned social worker -- selfless, never complaining, absolutely loving."

Mrs. Sykes is also survived by a son; a brother, Alvin Fleishman of Baltimore; another stepdaughter, Laurie Sykes Hofheimer of Florida; and nine grandchildren.

The family is planning a private gathering at an undisclosed location. Donations may be sent to the Hospice of Baltimore, 6601 N. Charles St., Baltimore 21204; or the University of Maryland Foundation, Anatomical Services Division, the University of Maryland School of Medicine, 655 W. Baltimore St., Baltimore 21201.

Pub Date: 1/02/99

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