Sylvia Stapp has a soft spot for babies.
At least twice a year for 46 years, Stapp, a Billings Heights resident, has visited the nearby Riverside Cemetery to decorate the headstones of babies in Yellowstone County’s burying ground for indigent persons.
Stapp lays plastic and wooden toys and stuffed animals on more than 40 headstones of babies and children who are buried in an area of the cemetery reserved for them.
“I try to match boy toys and girl toys,” Stapp said. "I have a special place in my heart for all of the babies.
“It’s kind of stress reliever for me. This is important to me,” she said as she pulled up grass that was growing over a headstone.
Three rows of headstones have brightly colored toys ranging from a Winnie the Pooh stuffed bear to a plastic fighter jet to a small baseball glove. Stapp buys the toys at the resale shops and garage sales. Sometimes people donate the toys when they learn why she wants them.
In all of the years Stapp has been coming to Riverside Cemetery, she has never seen anyone else decorating graves, she said. Only one of the graves in the children’s area has been tended by someone who leaves a small white cross with plastic flowers, she said.
Stapp has been remembering the babies anonymously for years but came forward recently to tell her story. An elderly woman who did not want to divulge her age, Stapp said she hopes someone will take over for her when she is no longer able.
Stapp wants people to remember the adults, too, but she said, “The adults have had their life. The babies didn’t. The death of a child you don’t ever get over. Never.”
Stapp was 23 years old when her infant son died. She and her husband, Floyd, and three of their four children were traveling in a Volkswagen Beetle near the Billings sugar factory in February 1965. A drunk driver ran a stop sign and hit their car, she said.
Moments before the crash, Stapp’s daughter in the back seat had handed her Frederick, the couple’s 4-month old baby. Frederick was on her lap when the collision threw her into the windshield.
Frederick died a week later from injuries suffered in the accident.
Seven months later, Stapp’s husband died from injuries related to his Army service in the Korean War and time spent in a prisoner of war camp, she said. Floyd Stapp and baby Frederick both were buried at the Custer National Cemetery in Big Horn County.
“I’m lucky if I get down there once every three years. My vehicle isn’t in that good a shape,” Stapp said.
Stapp’s visits to Riverside are, in part, about having lost her own baby.
“I often think, ‘What would my son look like today?’ I can do something for these babies. It makes me feel good somebody is thinking of them,” she said.
In the year after losing her husband and son, Stapp came across the Riverside Cemetery at the southern end of Bitterroot Drive while taking her children on a country drive, something she found relaxing. Back then, the cemetery was overgrown and weedy.
Stapp borrowed her brother’s lawnmower and cut the grass a few times before she broke a blade on a rock. She also found the grave of a baby whose headstone read “unknown baby boy, 1966.”
Stapp researched the grave and learned that the boy had been stillborn and found on the Rims.
“I just cried and cried and cried,” she said.
“I named him Matthew,” Stapp said, after the apostle. “The baby is not unknown to me or to God,” she said.
Stapp has made crosses for the baby boy’s grave and replaced them when they’ve been picked up. On a recent visit, Stapp placed a stuffed brown rabbit with floppy ears on the headstone, located in the shade of pine tree.
“This is my softie -- Matthew,” she said.
But Stapp loves them all.
“They’re not forgotten," she said. "In my heart I know they know I’m here.