First, there was her résumé, highlighting work as a teacher and a principal, a groundbreaking stint as a leader of vocational-technical education in Minnesota and two terms as a St. Paul school board member.
Then, there was her style: an appreciation of beauty and a determination to act and look her best, and to set an example in the process.
All of which meant that when Randy Kelly was elected mayor of St. Paul in 2001, and pledged to make education a focus of his administration, he sought out Mary Thornton Phillips to be the city's first education director.
"She had everything," said Dennis Flaherty, then the city's deputy mayor.
Phillips, who retired in 2003 to return to her native Louisiana, and lost virtually everything to Hurricane Katrina, died May 24 in Los Angeles. She was 83, and fought cancer and then Alzheimer's disease, but remained "very regal and dignified" until the end, said her daughter, Jennifer Phillips.
"She got to the point where she couldn't talk, but you saw Mary Phillips in there," she said.
When the hurricane flooded her home, Jennifer Phillips was emotional, even angry, but her mother said: "I'm very happy. I'm with my children. I'm one of the lucky ones."
Throughout her career, Phillips, who made history as the first woman and the first black person to be appointed assistant commissioner of vocational-technical education, was comfortable with business leaders and dedicated to tearing down obstacles that face kids — even if it tested her own principles.
From 1992 to 2001, she served on the school board. Then, as today, social issues arose occasionally. In 1999, controversy surrounded a district proposal to let students receive contraceptives in the high schools. The plan was defeated early on while Phillips, then the board's chairwoman, was recovering from surgery.
But final action was delayed until she returned, and she then helped lead a reversal of the decision amid a rousing debate that played out in hearings and calls and correspondence to board members. She said at the time: "Abstinence is best. However, the reality of student sexual activity is undeniable."
Jennifer Phillips said she did not how her mother felt about the issue personally. Her overriding concern, her daughter said, was that pregnancy was something that could come between students and their education, and as a result, it was a barrier that had to be removed.
"She had to look inside herself, but when it came down to it, it was just about the kids," Jennifer Phillips said.
In 2000, Phillips was the board's vice chairwoman when voters finally approved — after two earlier defeats — a proposal to give additional tax revenue to the schools. She also served as a board member with the United Way, Penumbra Theatre and the Wilder Foundation.
As the city's education director, Phillips was a liaison to the business community for a Kelly initiative to put tutors in the schools. Flaherty said she was an impeccable dresser and consummate professional who served as a mentor to many young people in the mayor's office.
Jennifer Phillips said: "She had a walk and a smile that just knocked you out."
Her mother, she added, saw her appearance as a statement about who she was, and to Jennifer, "she was very much my model for being a black woman in the world."
She set a beautiful table, too, and grew beautiful flowers, her daughter said.
Now, when Jennifer Phillips sees flowers, she added, she thinks of her mother.
In addition to her daughter, Phillips is survived by three sons, Gregory, Gerald and Jeffrey; a sister, Elizabeth T. Green; four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Services have been held.