Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe on Friday nominated children’s advocate Anne Holton, a former first lady and judge, to be his education secretary, pulling off a surprise for his final Cabinet pick.

McAuliffe (D) unveiled his choice at a morning news conference in the state Capitol, where political insiders and education advocates had gathered without any inkling that Holton would be the nominee.

McAuliffe described Holton, a former Richmond Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court judge married to former governor and current Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D), as the product of Roanoke, Richmond and Fairfax public schools.

As the daughter of another former governor, A. Linwood Holton (R), she had “a front-row seat to Virginia history as she and her family helped to integrate the Richmond City Public Schools,” McAuliffe said. Governor Holton, who campaigned against school segregation, sent his children to previously all-black Richmond schools when he was in office, personally escorting another daughter to school in a moment captured in an iconic photo.

“Anne Holton’s lifetime of experience with Virginia’s public schools, her public service on behalf of Virginia’s students and her passion for creating opportunity for all of our kids make her the best choice to be the secretary of education in the commonwealth of Virginia,” McAuliffe said.

Anne Holton, file photo. (Robert A. Reeder/TWP)

Holton’s selection was a surprise in part, because until now, her professional and personal focus have been more closely associated with juvenile justice and foster care than education. But those interests have sometimes overlapped. Most recently, she has served as director of the Great Expectations program for foster youth, which works with state community colleges to help current and former foster children attain higher education.

As first lady, she led efforts to reform the foster-care program and support her husband’s efforts to expand pre-K programs.

“As someone who has spent all my life intertwined with Virginia public schools — as a student, a parent, first lady and as a children’s advocate — I am thrilled to have this opportunity to apply my experience to helping the governor achieve his phenomenal education agenda,” said Holton, who noted that her three children went all the way through Richmond public schools.

McAuliffe visited all 23 of Virginia’s community colleges during his campaign, stressing their role as “engines of workforce development” as the state seeks to expand and diversify its economy. He called for expanding pre-kindergarten programs and for overhauling standardized testing that he said put more emphasis on rote memorization than true comprehension.

McAuliffe announced his choice eight days before he takes over from outgoing Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R). In recent weeks, the names of his other Cabinet nominees sometimes leaked before the governor-elect formally announced them, but this pick was a closely guarded secret.

“I told my new boss, ‘I’ve succeeded in my first assignment, to keep it under wraps,’ ” Holton said.

Many Capitol insiders had said the night before that they were expecting former state senator R. Edward Houck to get the post. The Spotsylvania Democrat was chairman of the Senate’s education and health committee before losing his reelection bid in 2011 to Sen. Bryce E. Reeves (R-Fredericksburg).

“Edd Houck and a superintendent or two” were the only names that Meg Gruber, president of the Virginia Education Association, had heard mentioned for education secretary until Holton and McAuliffe stepped into a meeting room at the Capitol.

“She walked in, and I was, like, ‘Is that who I think that is? Is that Anne?’ ” Gruber said.

The surprise was a pleasant one for Gruber.

“Anne’s a great advocate not only for children, but she has such great respect for teachers and support professionals,” Gruber said. “We’re very excited to be working with her.”

Bobbie Kilberg, president of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, had a similar reaction.

“Because of her long-standing commitment to children and education, it’s just a natural,” she said. “And she’ll bring a fresh perspective. She’s not part of the educational establishment.”