When Virginia "Ginny" Brooks joined an organization, she usually ended up at the helm.

It was "like clockwork," one of her daughters said, recalling that Brooks would soon be on the organization's board and often become its chairwoman or president.

Brooks, of St. Paul and Charlottesville, Va., died April 9 at her home in Charlottesville. She was 85.

"She was one of the finest women I've ever met," said Jean Hart of St. Paul, who served with Brooks on the boards of the Junior League and St. Paul Foundation. "She was a good leader. She was honest. She was fair. She encouraged people to speak. She didn't demean anyone. She was just a person people admired. And she was beautiful."

Hart and others spoke of Brooks' unstudied elegance, wisdom and warmth.

"She just kind of radiated," Hart said. "You knew she was a genuine person, and when she smiled at you, you knew that she meant that."

Born in 1928, Ginny Dahleen grew up on a farm in Sacred Heart, Minn., during the Great Depression. After high school, she studied for a year at St. Olaf College in Northfield, but her family couldn't afford for her to continue. So in 1948, she headed to Minneapolis to work her way through two years of teacher training at Miss Woods School, riding streetcars to grade schools for student teaching.

In 1949, she began teaching kindergarten and first grade in Wausau, Wis. She rented an apartment for $50 a month with fellow teacher Jean Sterner Sheetz. In 1951, the two became Northwest Orient stewardesses to see the world. She flew some of Northwest's first routes to Japan, staying over in Alaska, and five years later became a supervisor, said daughter Julie Zelle of Minneapolis.

"She not only had fun with her airline pals and Jean, but for a girl from a rural Minnesota farming town to be able to go around the world, in the pioneering days of aviation, that was an exciting time for her," Zelle said.

In late 1956, she had a blind date with a Harvard graduate, Ted Brooks. They wed five months later.

"She evidently came down the steps at her sister's house and he took one look, and it was all over for him," Zelle said.

Ginny Brooks was expecting their first child, Katherine, known as "Kakie," in 1959 when she earned her political science degree at Macalester College, where Ted Brooks would become a classics professor. Two years later, Julie was born.

Active in civic endeavors, Brooks led a 1960s project by the St. Paul Foundation to teach diverse students about commonalities. Legendary for organizing and planning, she was the first female and non-Catholic regents' chair at St. John's University. She headed the St. Paul Foundation, the large grantmaking organization. And she joined with a group of women to raise money to build a new library at Macalester.

"She was able to stay true to herself and her own values in a way that was never aggressive or confrontational," Zelle said of her mother, long a women's rights advocate. "She never lost her ground."

Her family took ships to Italy, France and Greece. Later, the couple traveled the world, from Egypt to the Amazon, and she wrote a book, "Turning the Leaves," on the Brookses' genealogy.

In 2001, Brooks learned she had Parkinson's disease, and her husband died in 2004. Seven years ago, she moved to a Charlottesville retirement home, where she had a stroke two weeks ago.

Other survivors included four grandchildren and a sister, Katherine Erickson.

Services will be at 1 p.m. Tuesday at House of Hope Presbyterian Church, 797 Summit Ave., St. Paul.