TAMPA — Mary Bryant believed there were no children who couldn't be educated as long as teachers had the means to teach them.
As an educator for more than 40 years, including five years as an assistant superintendent for Hillsborough County schools, she strove to give teachers the tools they needed and students the attention they deserved.
"There was never a 'can't,' " said Bernadette Washington, assistant principal of Roland Park School. "She believed in the good of people and that children could succeed."
Mrs. Bryant died unexpectedly Sunday morning. She was 75.
On Thursday night, Mrs. Bryant and Washington had attended the Excellence in Education Awards at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, where the Ida S. Baker minority educator award was given. It was an honor that Mrs. Bryant herself received in 1993.
"She had a unique way of finding the best in people," Washington said, recalling how Mrs. Bryant became a mentor to her as a new teacher in 1974, when Mrs. Bryant was principal of Roland Park. "She just believed children could learn with the right tools. So we rose to the occasion. She believed so much in teachers that we just did it."
A Tampa native, Mrs. Bryant attended Middleton High School, growing up in the days when Jim Crow laws still held sway over what blacks could and could not do in public.
Her father was a truck driver and her mother worked as a maid and a presser for a dry-cleaning business. Though neither of her parents finished high school, they were determined that their only daughter would do so.
Graduating in 1951, Mrs. Bryant earned a bachelor's in elementary education from Bethune-Cookman College in 1955. She then taught at Douglas Brown Elementary in Okeechobee for three years. She returned to Hillsborough County to teach at Henderson Elementary and became a learning specialist in 1968.
That led to her first post as principal of Phillip Shore Elementary in 1971, then at Roland Park in 1974.
"Her whole focus was doing what was good and right for boys and girls in the school district," said Doretha Edgecomb, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County School Board. "The community has lost a person who didn't seek a lot of attention, but she made a difference in the lives of many people."
A St. Petersburg Times profile of Mrs. Bryant in 1993 noted her giving blankets to families of children who had none and food to children who came to school hungry. She kept soap and deodorant in her office for children who could not bathe at home because the water was shut off.
"It is our responsibility to look after children," she was quoted in the article. "It is up to those of us who know better to let them know that you can do good things if you live a decent life."
In 1986, she was appointed as the area director for Hillsborough's Area II schools. In 1992, she became assistant superintendent for support services.
She was the first African-American woman to hold both posts, Edgecomb said. She maintained a humble attitude about honors and awards she received, saying students who did well were the real reward.
Mrs. Bryant maintained a presence in Hillsborough schools even after her retirement in 1997, volunteering at school events, acting as a liaison for new principals and stopping in at School Board meetings. At a meeting a month before her death, she told Edgecomb she was proud of her.
Mrs. Bryant was preceded in death by her husband, with whom she had three sons. Her youngest son, Lionel Bryant, works as a student intervention specialist at Roland Park Elementary.
Bryant Elementary School was named in her honor in 2002.
In the five years that Karen Bass has been the principal at Bryant, students have held an annual celebration and charity fundraiser on March 4, Mary Bryant's birthday, to learn about and honor their school's namesake.
Last year's fundraiser, on Mrs. Bryant's 75th birthday, benefited Horses for the Handicapped.
"It was a wonderful thing that the students could get to know the person that the school was named after and understand the person's accomplishments," Bass said. "We will miss her."