Myra Kraft, the wife of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and a hard-working philanthropist dedicated to numerous causes, died Wednesday morning after a battle with cancer, the team said in a statement. She was 68.
"We are all heartbroken," the statement said, adding that the philanthropic community has "suffered a great loss."
Myra Hiatt Kraft was an active and powerful force in her family's foundation and served on the boards of varied community and charitable organizations. She managed the Robert and Myra Kraft Family Foundation and was president of the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation, which contributed millions of dollars to charities in the United States and Israel.
In 1995, Myra Kraft became the first woman to chair the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, a position she held until 2002. She served the past two years as chair of the board of directors of United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley.
"Myra led by example through her hands on commitment to bettering the communities we serve," Michael Durkin, president and CEO of that United Way chapter, said in a statement. "While Myra will be deeply missed, her legacy of kindness to all will remain a beacon of hope in trying times."
Myra Kraft also served as chairwoman of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies and was on the board of directors of the American Repertory Theatre, Brigham and Women's Hospital, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, and Brandeis University, where she graduated in 1964.
"With her great heart and magnificent spirit, she lived her life in service to those who needed her help," said Barry Shrage, president of CJP. "Myra loved the land of Israel and the Israeli people and visited as often as she could."
Brandeis president Frederick M. Lawrence, chosen by a search committee on which Myra Kraft served, said, "She was always reaching out to students, faculty and other trustees and served as a model to all of us in so many ways. Myra was not just a philanthropist, she was a humanitarian in both a personal sense and a community sense."
Robert Kraft is chairman of the NFL's broadcast committee and a member of its labor committee. During his wife's illness, he has been deeply involved with talks to arrive at a new collective bargaining agreement and end the lockout of NFL players.
"On behalf of all NFL players, I want to offer my deepest sympathies to Bob and the Kraft family," NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said. "I know how much he loves Myra. We mourn her loss and the entire player family is with heavy hearts today."
Myra Kraft married Robert Kraft in June 1963 while she was a student at Brandeis. But she was not, at first, an enthusiastic supporter of her husband's attempts to buy the Patriots, who play just 20 miles from where he grew up in Brookline.
Robert Kraft became owner in January 1994, paying $172 million, an NFL record at the time, for a team that was 19-61 the previous five seasons.
"She thought it was nuts," he said in an interview with The Associated Press last January. "She was afraid it would affect our charitable giving and I said, 'We will do more for the community if we run this franchise correctly.' "
Earlier that month, Robert and Myra Kraft announced a $20-million gift to help attract doctors and nurses to Massachusetts community health centers.
Myra Kraft kept a low public profile regarding the team, but in 1996 pushed for the Patriots to renounce their rights to fifth-round draft pick Christian Peter. He had been arrested eight times, with four of those charges being dismissed. But the defensive lineman from Nebraska pleaded no contest to third-degree sexual assault. The team gave up its rights to him soon after the draft.
On Wednesday, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, arriving at an Atlanta hotel for an NFL owners meeting, said: "I'm just heartbroken, I'm just crushed. I found out just before I left. I love Robert and Myra, and I'm just devastated, and I feel awful for Robert and his family."
In Washington for an NFLPA meeting, Patriots player representative Matt Light said, "It's amazing how much one person can do."
"On behalf of the entire Patriots football operation, we mourn the passing of Myra Kraft," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in a statement. "As much support as her quiet but unmistakable presence provided us in the competitive arena and as much as I personally will miss her warm embraces before and after each game, Myra shined brightest in a much broader arena. In the humanitarian arena, her generosity through philanthropy was admired and appreciated by all. She made a permanent impression on hundreds of coaches, players, staff and our families as a model of grace, strength and giving. Myra's vision and example will impact and remain very much with our team forever."
Heath Evans, a New Orleans Saints running back who played for the Patriots from 2006 to 2008, tweeted: "What made Myra Kraft special? Strong but Tender-hearted/Proud but Humble/Bold but Soft-Spoken/Extremely blessed but lived to be a Blessing."
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, said he and his wife had been friends with Myra Kraft for more than 20 years and that he spoke with Robert Kraft on Wednesday morning.
"I know he and the whole family are devastated, and so are we," Patrick said. "She had an incredible kindness and thoughtfulness and shrewdness as a businessperson and as a leader among the not-for-profit and charitable sector here."
One of the Patriots' biggest rivals, the New York Jets, also were saddened.
"A passionate and caring woman, Myra's legacy will be the scores of people she touched through her love, friendship and philanthropic endeavors," Jets chairman Woody Johnson said in a statement.
Myra Kraft was the daughter of Jacob Hiatt, who grew up in Lithuania and moved to the United States in 1935. He settled in Worcester, where she was born. Hiatt became president of the E.F. Dodge Paper Box Corp. in Leominster in 1938 and stayed on when it was bought by Whitney Box.
The company now is known as the Rand-Whitney Group, which Robert Kraft bought in 1972. He now serves as its chairman and chief executive officer.
The Krafts have four sons, Jonathan, Daniel, Joshua and David. Jonathan is president of the Patriots. Daniel is president and CEO of International Forest Products, founded in 1972 by his father. Joshua is president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.