Sandra Pressley, 63; was mother of city councilor

By Laurie D. Willis
Globe Correspondent / July 14, 2011

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Sandra L. Pressley was determined to show her only child the world was bigger than the block on which they lived in Chicago. She exposed her to ballet, the cello and ballroom dancing, and took her to Europe despite being a single parent with limited means.

Ms. Pressley - the mother of Ayanna Pressley, the Boston city councilor at large, died of complications of leukemia July 1 in Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The Dorchester resident was 63.

Relatives and friends said Ms. Pressley loved God, jazz, sports, Broadway shows, the Red Sox, and debating politics. She was well known and respected in Boston political circles.

“Sandra was an amazing gift who came into our lives through the daughter she loved with all her heart,’’ Senator John F. Kerry said in a statement read at her funeral. “Sandra was a woman of immense faith, and sometimes I think she spent more time praying for me than I’d prayed for anything. . . . Sandra prayed for me in good times and bad. She called and told me she was praying for me when I ran for president and again when I found I was diagnosed with cancer.’’

Ms. Pressley was born in Cincinnati and in 1966 graduated from Withrow High School, where she played the piano and clarinet, ran track, played volleyball, danced ballet, was in the history club, on the pep team, and a member of Future Teachers of America.

Her jubilant personality earned her the moniker Charming, said Pat Todd Sims of Cincinnati, a friend since elementary school.

“She was always bubbly and always smiling,’’ said Sims. “I never met anybody that didn’t like her.’’

Ms. Pressley grew up in Cincinnati’s Evanston neighborhood and was active with the Youth Fellowship at Gaines United Methodist Church.

“There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do for you,’’ Pat Sims said. “She had a loving kindness and a strong faith in God.

“We just had our 45th high school class reunion . . . and a lot of people who knew she was sick had been asking whether Sandy was going to be there,’’ Sims said. “She’ll definitely be missed by all her friends and classmates.’’

Ms. Pressley met Martin Pressley while working as an activist in Cincinnati. They married and had a daughter, but Ms. Pressley moved to Chicago and the couple later divorced. In Chicago, she worked as an advocate for tenants’ rights with the Urban League and in management for Roper & Quigg, a patent law firm.

Eventually, she moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., where she worked as an executive assistant for Time Warner until illness forced her to retire.

“We connected on many levels, because we were both from Ohio and our fathers were ministers,’’ said Time Warner co-worker Kimberly Thomas of Valley Stream, N.Y. “I have a young family, and she always gave me motherly advice. She told me she always kept Ayanna busy in different classes and stuff, and she told me how important it was to raise a well-rounded child.’’

In Brooklyn, Ms. Pressley joined St. Paul Community Baptist Church and began dating fellow church member Warren Maynard.

After they married, she decided to keep the same last name as her daughter.

Maynard, who is hearing impaired, and Ms. Pressley moved to another part of Brooklyn and founded a deaf ministry at Emmanuel Baptist Church.

Ayanna Pressley came to Boston to attend Boston University. Ms. Pressley split time between New York and Boston when her daughter decided to run for office.

“There isn’t a day that goes by . . . that somebody doesn’t approach me and say, ‘I voted for you because your mother asked me to,’ ’’ Pressley said. “She was my not-so-secret weapon and my greatest asset. She was tireless in her efforts.’’

Ms. Pressley, who enjoyed wearing colorful outfits and jewelry, was well known in Boston, particularly in Dorchester. It was not uncommon for her to attend City Council meetings, where she was affectionately called Mama Pressley and wore a hat emblazoned with the title.

She made headlines last year when she surprised her daughter by showing up at a February council meeting, though she lived in New York at the time, to sing Stevie Wonder’s version of “Happy Birthday’’ to her.

“It was the day I introduced my order for a hearing on teen pregnancy,’’ Pressley recalled. “All I could do was shake my head when I saw her walk in. She looked so self-satisfied that she had pulled it off. I shook my head on the outside while secretly beaming and celebrating on the inside. She surprised me, but I really shouldn’t have been surprised, because she always found a way to be there for every first in my life.’’

Pressley and her mother were exceptionally close.

“My mother was my bedrock, the foundation, and the motivation for everything I do,’’ Pressley said. “She’s my hero, and she’s also my best friend. She was an excellent role model for me and an inspiration. Everything I learned about advocacy I learned from my mother, because she was such an advocate for me.’’

Martin Pressley, a college professor, spoke at his former wife’s funeral. He drew laughter from the crowd of 400 - including Mayor Thomas M. Menino and City Council President Stephen J. Murphy - when he quipped, “Sandy was a politician without ever having been elected to anything.’’

The entire City Council attended Ms. Pressley’s funeral (Governor Deval Patrick and State Treasurer Steven Grossman attended her viewing) because she was well loved and affectionately referred to as “the 14th councilor.’’

“My mother had a legacy of helping people and connecting them to resources, much like politicians try to do,’’ her daughter said. “She was a person of great respect and influence, which was manifested by the outpouring of people, including clergy from throughout the city and city, state, and federal elected officials who came to pay tribute to her and to mourn her passing.’’

Mother and daughter were holding hands when Ms. Pressley died.

“In her final moments, I told her the only three things I really needed to,’’ Pressley said. “Thank you. I love you. God will never leave you, and neither will I. There wasn’t much more to say because we had spent our lives saying it all.’’

Besides her daughter and husband, Ms. Pressley leaves her father, the Rev. James Echols of Chicago, an aunt and uncle, and many “adopted’’ sons and daughters.

Laurie D. Willis can be reached at