More than 4,000 families a year spend nights at the Ronald McDonald House, a shelter on the University of Minnesota campus that Priscilla Lou Stanko helped start after her son died of cancer at age 9.

As its first volunteer executive director, she was part of a small group of parents, physicians and friends who bought and renovated an old boardinghouse on Oak Street in the 1970s to provide a home away from home for families with children in need of long-term medical care.

“She said she could not do much, but wanted to help a little,” said Donna Moores, the home’s current director of Major Gifts and Corporate Relationships. “She was smiling and caring and forward-thinking. It was done out of empathy for parents who had no idea that they’d need a place to stay and support of other parents.”

Stanko, of Bloomington, died March 9 of rheumatoid arthritis at age 92.

Stanko, nicknamed “Perk,” grew up in Iowa and earned a teaching certificate from Coe College in 1946. After school she served as a counselor at YWCA camps in Wisconsin and Duluth. In 1947, she was named a delegate to the World Conference of Christian Youth in Oslo, Norway, and then to the World YWCA World Conference in Sweden. In 1950, she took the job as director of teenage programs for the Minneapolis YWCA. While serving as camp director at the former Lyman Lodge in Excelsior, she met her husband-to-be, Ed.

They married and eventually settled in Bloomington, where they raised three children. In 1968, their son, Bruce, was diagnosed with cancer, which required frequent trips to the University of Minnesota Hospital for treatment. While she was able to return home after each visit, Stanko saw firsthand the predicament that parents from out of town faced, having no place to stay and difficulty keeping their families together.

Her son died in 1971, and Stanko said, “We have to do something to help parents who have children who need immediate attention,” said Ed Stanko, her husband of 64 years. “She saw a need and took action. She knew what she was doing.”

The original Ronald McDonald House opened in 1979 with just a couple of rooms. For 10 years Priscilla Stanko led fundraisers as a second house was built and then a third and a fourth, which brought the total number of rooms to 52. With help from scores of volunteers, she stocked the houses with essentials. On Thursdays, she organized “Clean Out the Refrigerator Day,” when guests and the volunteers she oversaw made salads and gathered for lunch, Moores said.

“That was to bring people together to support families,” Moores said. She “took the worst possible situation for a parent and turned it into a blessing for many other parents and children.”

For her efforts, she was honored with a WCCO Radio Good Neighbor Award, her husband said.

Stanko was an active member of Oak Grove Presbyterian Church in Bloomington. In 1997, she accompanied her husband on a mission trip to build a medical clinic at San Lucas, Guatemala. She also was a longtime member of the Philanthropic Educational Organization, which provides opportunities for female students worldwide.

“She loved helping and being of service to others,” Stanko’s granddaughter Grace Brogan said. “She was witty, generous and supported her community.”

Besides her husband, Stanko is survived by two daughters, Karen Brogan, of Forest Lake, and Sandy Knilans, of New Hope; a half-sister, Ellen Collins, of Toledo, Iowa; nine grandchildren and one great-grand child.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. May 16 at Oak Grove Presbyterian Church in Bloomington.