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Couple who died in house fire in Highland had spent years helping Metro East youth

Couple who died in house fire in Highland had spent years helping Metro East youth

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HIGHLAND • Jack and Shirley Cygan danced Saturday night away at a grandson’s wedding.

On Sunday morning, a fire swept through their home in the 700 block of Pike Drive East, trapping them inside. They both died.

Relatives said the two, both 85, were longtime Highland residents and owned a catering company there until 1997. Their daughter, Valerie Delaney, and her husband, Dan Delaney, now operate the company.

The Cygans had been married 64 years, after meeting at a dance in East St. Louis.

“They were in great health and enjoying their later years in life along with their grandchildren,” said their daughter, Denise Tissier, 60, of Troy, Ill. “They enjoyed every moment of their lives.”

On Saturday night they celebrated with family at the wedding.

“They were having a good time,” Tissier said. “They were on cloud nine because they got to say ‘hi’ to everyone and got to dance the polka.”

Tissier and her husband drove the Cygans home and said good night. “They were fine and smiling when we left,” she said.

Authorities said the fire might have started in the basement, but the cause is under investigation.

Firefighters said they arrived quickly after police received two 911 calls shortly after 8 a.m. Smoke was already rolling out of the house and the fire was fully involved.

For many years, the Cygans were leaders in the Catholic Youth Organization, or CYO. They helped teens in the Metro East hold bake sales and car washes and chicken dinners to earn money and then travel to destinations as close as the Ozarks and as far as France.

A favorite priest, the Rev. Walter McPherson at St. Martin of Tours in Washington Park, got them involved in the organization.

“You couldn’t say no to Father Mac,” Jack Cygan said in a Post-Dispatch feature story about the couple in 1997.

“He throws a bank book on the desk and says, ‘You’re going to take 40 kids on a trip to Fort Lauderdale.’ But the book only had $5 in it,” Jack Cygan recalled at the time.

It took the group three months to raise $3,000 for the 10-day trip, but they did it. And the Cygans were hooked.

“Once it’s in your system, you can’t get it out,” Shirley Cygan said.

Tissier said her parents traveled extensively — Rome, China, Poland, France, South America, Africa, Hawaii, Mexico and Alaska. They retired from the CYO about five years ago.

“Many teenagers got to travel with my parents around the world,” Tissier said. “They put the youths before anything. They were beautiful people.”

Jack Cygan also coached basketball, softball and football. Tissier said her mother was right beside him, keeping score.

For 41 years Jack Cygan was a foundry supervisor at Cerro Copper in Sauget.

He also was a member of the Polish American War Veterans and served on the Highland Police and Fire Commission.

The couple had two daughters and two sons, plus nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

John Cygan, 58, of Highland, said the loss of his parents is unbearable.

“It’s going to leave a big hole in our lives and heart,” he said. “They are irreplaceable with all the things they have done.”

J.B. Forbes of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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Denise Hollinshed is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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