In 1994, when Sandra Sonner received her master's degree in counseling from Johns Hopkins University, it was almost a formality -- an official affirmation of what she'd been doing all her life.
She had four children at home and was pregnant with a fifth when she found time to volunteer with a local Head Start program.
After her family grew to six children who, from oldest to youngest, were only eight years apart, she was also a mentor and on-call mom to neighborhood kids and a changing cast of international students who made their way to the Sonner home in Rockville. Young visitors were so commonplace that the Sonners began to talk of the "seventh child" who always seemed to have a place at the table.
"Sandy listened but never pried," one of those "seventh" children, Suzanne Schneider, said at a memorial service for Sonner, who died of colon cancer July 1 at age 70. "She remembered what we told her, even small things, because we mattered."
Besides raising her family and helping in her husband's career -- Andrew L. Sonner served eight terms as Montgomery County state's attorney and later was an appeals court judge -- Sandy Sonner helped launch the historic preservation movement in Rockville, co-owned an antiques business for several years and was an innovative official at Montgomery College.
Yet no matter how many children, community projects or professional responsibilities competed for her attention, she seemed to have time for everything.
"She was always so wise," said State Sen. Jennie M. Forehand (D-Montgomery), who knew Sonner for more than 40 years. "People knew and liked and trusted her."
Sonner spent most of her life in Montgomery County. She was in the Class of 1953 at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, where she met her future husband, and was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of George Washington University.
In the early 1970s, she joined Rockville's fledgling historic preservation movement, when the stately houses and trees of West Montgomery Avenue came under threat. Her documentary research helped make the case for the neighborhood, which is now included in the National Register of Historic Places.
"She was a community leader without a title," Forehand said.
As a onetime history teacher who read widely and could quote long literary passages from memory, Sonner led the effort to honor the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who often had visited Rockville, which was his father's hometown. But when Fitzgerald died in 1940, a priest decided the author was too disreputable to be buried in the sanctified ground of St. Mary's Catholic Church. Thanks to Sonner's subtle persuasion, Fitzgerald and wife Zelda were moved from the public Rockville Cemetery and laid to rest in the family plot at St. Mary's on Nov. 7, 1975.
From 1984 to 2004, Sonner was a senior program director in the office of continuing education at Montgomery College, where she developed job training initiatives, community forums and programs for gifted students and senior citizens. When she was given the college's Silver Medallion Award at her retirement, a proclamation noted that she "oversaw the creation of thousands of courses . . . that served several hundred thousand learners." While working full time, she received two master's degrees (her first was in higher education administration from George Washington University) and counseled students at night.
At home, she allowed her children plenty of latitude -- unfinished puzzles were on the floors, and the back yard was pocked with freshly dug holes -- but each child had to spend an hour of quiet time alone every day. If anyone grew too vociferous, Sonner delivered a mild admonishment: "Say it gently."
"One thing she insisted on," her husband said, "was that when the family sat down for dinner, it was not going to be in front of the TV. She was very gentle but very firm."
In 1974, the family took a month-long journey to Guanajuato, Mexico, in their Peugeot station wagon. Each child was required to keep a journal of the trip and do homework assigned in advance. The Sonners grew so close to a family in Guanajuato that their children and grandchildren have exchanged visits for three decades.
With one or more of her children -- she had four boys and two girls -- Sonner visited England, Ireland, Japan, China, Germany and New Zealand. This year, as her five-year fight with cancer neared its end, she spent two months in Sarajevo, Bosnia, where her husband was serving as a judge.
"She knew the world could be a very unkind place," said Schneider, who considered Sonner a second mother. "But despite that, she chose to be an optimist, to be kind and to see the sweetness in life. She was somebody who knew what mattered and what didn't."