Mary Lee Booker

Mary Lee Booker ( )

Mary L. Booker, who rose through the ranks from classroom teacher to principal while mentoring her peers, died Jan. 9 of multiple myeloma at her Hamilton home. She was 57.

"Mary L. Booker was a consummate educator and administrator. She was my principal mentor when I was a new principal and generously shared her decades of experience and insight with me," said interim city schools CEO Tisha Edwards.

"She devoted her life to the children of Baltimore," Ms. Edwards said. "Her career embodied the highest standards of professionalism with deep personal dedication to her students and colleagues."

The daughter of Benjamin Thomas Gray Sr., a corner grocery store owner, and Annie Muriel Smith Gray, a nurse, Mary Lee Gray was born in Baltimore, the oldest of six children, and raised in West Baltimore near Gilmor Street.

After graduating from Seton High School in 1974, she earned a bachelor's degree in early childhood education in 1978 from what is now Towson University and a master's degree in education, also from Towson, in 1986. She did additional graduate study at the University of Maryland University College, the Johns Hopkins University, Goucher College and Loyola University Maryland.

"She acquired her work ethic as a young girl while working in her parents' West Baltimore store and at Whitty's Sub Shop as a teenager. She met her future husband in that very sub shop," said a daughter, Sheri Booker, who lives in White Marsh. "In 1977, she married William Albert Booker, a city police officer."

Ms. Booker began her lifelong career in city public schools in 1978 when she began teaching at Guilford Elementary School. She later joined Harford Heights and Brehms Lane elementary schools, where she taught in the gifted and talented education program.

She was appointed assistant principal at Lemmel Junior High School and then was named assistant principal and later principal of Glenmount Elementary School. From 1998 to 2000, she was principal of Benjamin Franklin Junior High School.

From 2000 until 2012, Ms. Booker was principal of Francis Scott Key Elementary and Middle School, and over the last two years until her death was principal of Calvin M. Rodwell Elementary School.

Nancy Neilson was principal of Gardenville Elementary School when she met Ms. Booker, who "was the parent of a very good student."

"She would come in periodically to check on her daughter's progress, and the conversations were always quiet, respectful, and very much on topic," said Ms. Neilson. "After the 'business' was concluded, we would laugh and commiserate over our shared experiences in the school system."

Out of that relationship, the two educators forged a strong and lasting friendship.

"As we became friends as well as colleagues, I got to know Mary in a different way," said Ms. Neilson. "I always found her to be a quiet voice of reason, who was an excellent principal and a strong role model for everyone she met."

Ms. Neilson was touched by the way her friend faced the illness that eventually claimed her life.

"She never complained about it, and in fact, she would shake her head and laugh at each new broken bone, brace or sling," she said. "It is those traits that will always live in my memory of Mary: her strength, dignity, sense of humor, and her love of life, her family and her friends."

In addition to her professional career, Ms. Booker was an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University and Morgan State University, "where she taught and mentored some of the best principals and administrators in Baltimore City," her daughter said.

In recognition of her work, Ms. Booker earned a Shero Award and was named WBAL Teacher of the Year.

"She believed life was about the quality and not quantity," her daughter said. "And that's why she never missed an opportunity to participate in a line dance when the 'Cupid Shuffle' or 'Wobble' came on, travel, spend time with her friends and family, laugh through her pain, mentor others, adopt her children's friends as her own."

Ms. Booker was an active member of Greater New Hope Baptist Church, where she served in various capacities, spearheaded numerous committees, and served as the longtime president of the New Members Circle.

"She was many things to many people, but she was a cheerleader and advocate, motivator and encourager to everyone she encountered," her daughter said.

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at her church, 2720 W. North Ave.

In addition to her husband and daughter, Ms. Booker is survived by another daughter, Chanta Booker of Rosedale; her father, Benjamin T. Gray Sr. of Baltimore; her mother, Annie M. Gray of Rosedale; two brothers, Benjamin T. Gray Jr. of Bowie and Alvin Gray of Abingdon; and three sisters, Louis Davis and Gail Gray, both of Baltimore, and Germaine Turner of Aberdeen.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com