Isabella Cannon will be 97 years old this Saturday, the day before Mother’s Day. When she said that the other day, after an event at City Hall with some former Raleigh officials, it reminded me that I was long overdue in writing about why–when I think about the best people I’ve met in public life–Mayor Cannon is at the top of my list.

It’s not because of what she did as mayor. That was 25 years ago and I didn’t live here then. It does have something to do with the fact that she was elected at age 73, when her opponent dismissed her as “the little old lady in tennis shoes” and she proudly accepted the title. She’s got guts, and since I’ve known her, Isabella’s always been on the side of the little gal and guy. But that’s not it either, or not all of it anyway. No, it’s her kids.

I met them a couple of years ago at Elon College. There were 35 of them, according to my notes. Don’t let anyone tell you Isabella and her late husband, a career diplomat, never had children. These kids were hers, except that they weren’t kids any more, they were an astonishingly adult group of college seniors. The credit for that, they said, was in large part due to what they’d learned in the Isabella Cannon Leadership Program, which the mayor has endowed–both with money and her regular participation.

They’d learned to lead by giving, the students said. They’d learned to try again when they failed and to keep challenging themselves when they succeeded. They’d learned to support one another and value teamwork. The Isabella Cannon program is founded on community service, and the students had worked in hospitals, hospice programs, Habitat for Humanity, in the Guardian Ad Litem program for children whose parents are charged with crimes, and in a variety of campus programs. They’re encouraged to spend a year abroad, and several I met had been in the Peace Corps.

Clearly, they’d done some great things, and the best evidence of that wasn’t so much what they said as the passion with which they said it. One student told about helping an 80-year-old cancer patient get out of bed, get into a wheelchair and go to her church for the first time in a year. “That woman did not give up. She lived her life the way she wanted to live it.” Helping her, this student said, she’d learned what real determination is. She’d also learned who gains the most from community service programs: Those who serve.

It was an emotional story, and not the first. The students were addressing themselves to “Doctor Cannon,” who was to receive an honorary degree, saying that her courage in running for office in her 70s–and staying active in public life in her 80s and 90s–was an inspiration to them.

Each had a gift for her. One chose a candle. “There are two ways to spread light,” he said. “The candle is Isabella Cannon, and we are the mirror that reflects it.”

Near the end, everyone was tearing up. To be honest, I’m tearing up now as I remember that day. What stands out most clearly in my memory though, is the student who, when her turn came, had the brilliance to embrace the emotion and let us rejoice in it.

“Everybody stand up and stretch,” she said. As, gratefully, we did, she said the lesson she’d learned about leadership was, “It isn’t about where you go, it’s reaching out your arms and taking people with you.”

Thanks for leading, Mayor Cannon. Happy Mother’s Day.