James R. Hagerty/The Wall Street Journal
The mom hugs her two youngest.
DUNSEITH, N.D.—Few mothers are likely to get more cards, flowers and phone calls this Sunday than Joyce Dumont.
Mrs. Dumont, 77 years old, a Native American of the Chippewa tribe, is at the root of a family tree so tangled that it seems more like a forest. By her reckoning, she has had 69 kids—including six through childbirth, five stepchildren, 11 who were adopted, several dozen foster children and a few who simply moved in when they had no better place to go.
Her latest three were adopted by Mrs. Dumont and her husband, Buddy, also 77, over the past few years. They range in age from 7 to 10. “They’re really rambunctious,” she told a recent visitor to her home near the Canadian border, where a washing machine chugged and a chubby Chihuahua named Peewee scoured the floor for Cheerios.
Social workers say Mrs. Dumont is exceptional in terms of the number of children she has nurtured over six decades. Chuck Johnson, president of the National Council for Adoption, a nonprofit group in Alexandria, Va., knows of people who have fostered scores of children but said such cases are rare.
“Everybody knew they could count on Joyce,” said Andrea Olson, who arranges adoptions through the AASK Adoption Program in Grand Forks, N.D.
In a poor rural area of central North Dakota, social workers regularly called on her to take foster children; she volunteered to shelter others after hearing they were in trouble. Some just showed up. A high-school buddy of one of Mrs. Dumont’s stepsons was invited for a sleepover in the late 1970s—and ended up staying two years.
At the very least, visitors to Mrs. Dumont’s house are expected to stay for a meal, often what she calls “Indian tacos,” made from deep-fried bread dough, hamburger, sour cream, raw onions, tomatoes and black olives. During one such feast last month, Mr. Dumont interrupted his wife as she reminisced about her children. “Honey,” he said quietly, “we better eat before the food gets stale.”
As a parent, Mrs. Dumont’s style is to demonstrate rather than shout. When she found one boy’s stash of marijuana, she flushed it down a toilet. Her tears could stop a sibling squabble. When a daughter sneaked out of middle school, Mrs. Dumont took her hand and silently led her back, then sat next to her all through typing class. It was so embarrassing that “I never skipped school again,” says that daughter, Marilyn Ruberry, now a bookkeeper in Raymond, Alberta.
Mrs. Dumont’s advice on parenting is simple: “All children want is something stable. They want to know that you love them. It doesn’t have to be love with big computers and fancy clothes and all of that. Just that you care.”
As for rules, “I’d insist that they have to do something with their lives—and actually they have.”
Their occupations today include teacher, nurse, welding-shop owner and plumber.
Her debut as a mom was inauspicious. When she graduated from high school, she recalled, “I was 18 years old, and I thought I was really smart, so I decided to marry this guy.” She and her late first husband had six children together and roamed the country from Illinois to California, but the marriage broke down.
While he was away for a few days, she says, she hired a moving crew to uproot the entire house and haul it to a plot in another part of Dunseith, a town of about 800 people.
When her husband returned, he found only the front steps where the family home had stood. Divorce ensued.
As a newly single mom in the late 1960s, she worked as a teacher’s aide by day and restaurant cook by night. “Sometimes, boy, it got really slim,” she said of the family budget. Her eldest son, Rocky Davis, helped care for his brothers and sisters. “We learned how to cook early,” said Mr. Davis, who remembers being “basically the dad of the house.”
Mrs. Dumont obtained a state grant to pay for nursing school. Around that time, she met Jim Fandrick, a divorced truck driver who was raising two children. At first she was reluctant to date him. He won her over by saying, “Let’s go to the movies with the kids.” They married in 1970 and were together till he died of cancer 32 years later.
In 2003, she married Mr. Dumont, who had three kids and was taking care of a grandchild.
Mrs. Dumont now has help running the household from Lucille Vivier, 50. “I’m child No. 23,” Ms. Vivier explained as she cleared plastic plates off the table. At age 14, Ms. Vivier took refuge at Mrs. Dumont’s house after she left a troubled home. Mrs. Dumont “saved my life, both physically and spiritually,” said Ms. Vivier, an English teacher and poet.
Two years ago, Mrs. Dumont retired from her career as a nurse. She and her husband receive Social Security payments, and the three recently adopted children qualify for Medicaid insurance. Some of her grown children drop off household supplies when they see she is running short. The Dumonts occasionally dole out $5 allowances to their latest adopted children—Shaniel, Hennessey, and Adam—who call that money their “unemployment.”
Mrs. Dumont drives a 1995 Buick. She doesn’t have a cellphone or use a computer. Her one-story beige house, on a hillside surrounded by oak and birch trees, has only three small bedrooms, but there are two beds in the living room and more in the basement to handle the occasional overflow.
In one corner of her living room, rainwater has punctured a ceiling panel. “My roof busted in,” Mrs. Dumont explained. “I had a pail there.”
Holidays are unpredictable but never lonely. Thanksgiving is “kind of pot luck,” Mrs. Dumont said. “Whoever comes, comes.” That can easily be 30 or 40 people, jostling around three tables.
At an age when her peers make do with the occasional fleeting visit from grandchildren, she has yet to experience the empty nest.
“I don’t know what I’d do without kids,” Mrs. Dumont said. “Maybe I’m afraid?”