PLANT CITY — Mary Yvette Thomas Mathis has been this town's heir apparent for years.
Husband Tony Mathis, 57, said he has sat at many City Commission meetings in which mayors were nominated and christened — everyone, it seemed, but his wife, a commissioner since 2000.
When his wife finally got the mayoral nod last week, she took it in stride, thanking many and making a reference to the Circle of Life, the theme song from her favorite movie, Disney's The Lion King.
Tony, however, felt more reverent about the event. He put his hands on his heart and looked up, in recognition of his parents, her father and their faith.
"It was just a moment of true achievement for our families," he said. "Just that moment, 'I'm really living this. This is really happening.' It was just a moment that was ready to come. And it did."
Mary Mathis was nominated for the post by another longtime commissioner, Rick Lott, a former mayor himself.
"One of the great qualities about Mary is that she always wants to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to speak their mind," he said. "Everyone on the commission won't feel rushed to give their opinion and she will allow us to build a consensus. She's very, very patient."
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Like many Plant City residents, Mathis is a lifer, born and raised in the east Hillsborough community.
She graduated from Plant City High in 1975, where she danced and starred on the basketball team. At church, she played piano at Sunday school.
She has seen Plant City evolve from a "one big happy family" town to one of more than 35,000 residents in her 55 years.
That family drew her back from Atlanta's Clark College, where she majored in history with an education minor.
She has worked in education for 28 years, now as the assistant principal for curriculum at Marshall Middle School. She said she feels fulfilled every year on that last day of school in the sweltering Florida sun when she watches school buses drive off, full of future high schoolers.
Mathis still holds aspirations to ascend to a principal role one day, but has never tried to follow a set path in her career, or life.
"You can have your day's agenda planned out, but when you hit the door, you don't know what's going to happen," she said.
Mathis rattles off a list of mentors who have touched her life, including Barbara Bethel, 71, a longtime human relations supervisor for Hillsborough County schools. Mathis worked under Bethel about 20 years ago and the two have been friends since.
She was "not surprised at all" Mathis has risen to the rank of mayor. Bethel said Mathis has always been a problem-solver and a uniting leader. She said she could never ask Mathis to come in too early or stay too late.
"You like to see someone who has worked hard and, for me, someone with heart, in a leadership position," she said.
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Education, Mathis said, has been a resonating tenet in her family. Her father, Willie Thomas Jr., strived to put his three kids through college and his wife, Emma, through school at the University of South Florida while Mathis was in high school.
Willie Thomas, though, never had a formal education. Tony Mathis said despite "not having a degree on paper," the patriarch "had a Ph.D. in life."
"He worked hard to educate his family," she said. "He denied himself (education) so that we could have (that opportunity)."
Although he passed away in April 2008 after a battle with lung cancer, Mathis remembers him sitting in the back row of all her City Commission meetings. Afterward, he would critique her speeches and arguments on resolutions.
Former Mayor Mike Sparkman, the city's longest serving mayor, appointed Mathis to the vice mayor's post four times. He said she has always been a strong advocate for her constituents and asks good questions of city staffers to ensure commissioners understand the issues.
"She's an educator, so she's very educated herself," he said.
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Thomas, a local caterer for decades, was known for his mouth-watering barbecue, served at many Plant City graduations, weddings and parties.
Tony Mathis jokingly recalls that barbecue and Southern cooking served as a "secret weapon" Mary employed to lure him in.
Mary and Tony attended Plant City High together in 1973, where they were close until graduating and parting ways. Tony worked in Washington, D.C., with the federal government but moved back to Plant City about 10 years ago. Friends set up a meeting between him and Mary, thinking he could help her out on the political trail. Neither knew the other was a long-lost friend.
When she opened the door for that meeting, Tony called it "truly a defining moment."
Mathis called her husband a "true gentleman" who talked with Thomas preliminarily about dating his daughter although both were more than 45 years old at the time. The two were engaged a few months later and married June 4, 2004.
"I was smitten, as we might say," he said of their reconnection. "That iced tea and ribs … That and most of all, just her."
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Now retired, Tony said he's proud to be the mayor's stay-at-home husband. He likes to whip up some fried chicken or fish for his wife "when she comes home and she's exhausted."
He said his wife is the most caring person he knows, from caring for her students at Marshall to helping fellow citizens in the city she presides over.
"She has truly been a treasure to me," he said. "For us, this is tremendously great. Some people would say small town, local politics (aren't important). But we love our city. This is our heart."
Mathis said she's "eternally grateful," and she's careful not to leave a single person out when listing specific thank-you's, including "the community as a whole."
While another mentor, her first-grade teacher, Sadye Gibbs Martin, was Plant City's first female African-American city commissioner and mayor, Mathis said she will continue to blaze her own trail.
"I wouldn't say I'm following in anyone's footsteps because my mother always told me, 'You have to find your own shoes,' " Mathis said. "So it's … giving back through another vehicle to help other people and help the community."
Times staff writer Rich Shopes contributed to this report.