Lillian L. Sugarman, 80, of Philadelphia, a nationally recognized leader in early childhood education, died Tuesday, April 13, of brain cancer at Berman Commons, an assisted living facility in Atlanta.

Ms. Sugarman’s more than 50-year career, starting as a Head Start teacher in the 1960s, spanned the public and private sectors. In addition to leadership roles in the Head Start program, she brought her child-care expertise to posts with the federal government and served on President Barack Obama’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities.

“She was passionate about making sure young children got a good start in life, and supporting their families and educators,” said friend and longtime colleague Diane Trister Dodge, president of the Dodge Family Fund and founder of Teaching Strategies. “She was quite a special person.”

One of her gifts was helping nurture other teachers.

“She was a great judge of character and intuitively knew if someone had the potential to be a great teacher even if they had no experience,” Dodge said.

Ms. Sugarman and her two siblings were raised in Wilmington. After high school, she earned degrees in education from the University of the District of Columbia and in social work from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Ms. Sugarman lived in the University City neighborhood in Philadelphia, but her work often took her to Washington. After she retired from professional life, she joined the board of directors and the Early Head Start Committee of the Maternity Care Coalition (MCC) in Philadelphia.

“She was extremely involved,” said Toscha Blalock, MCC’s senior director of Early Head Start. “She knew Early Head Start inside and out. She came early to the meetings and stayed late.”

A strong presence, Ms. Sugarman mentored countless early childhood educators, and she didn’t stop when she retired.

“She was this little, tiny person, but she immediately pulled you in,” Blalock said. “She wasn’t one for small talk. She was maternal but not in a saccharine kind of way. She was the aunt everybody wants.”

Ms. Sugarman was devoted to her family, especially her younger sister, Sally, who had Down syndrome. She was an active volunteer and eventually a board member at the Mary Campbell Center in Wilmington, where her sister lived until she died in 2007.

“She was so devoted to her sister, Sally, that friends who never met Sally came to her service because Lillian talked about her all the time,” Dodge said.

Ms. Sugarman never married or had children of her own, but she was close to her nieces, nephews, and many friends.

“She nurtured and enriched the lives of family members and hundreds of colleagues who became lifelong friends,” Dodge said.

She is survived by a sister and other relatives.

A funeral was held April 16.

Donations may be made in her memory to the Mary Campbell Center, 4641 Weldin Rd., Wilmington, Del., 19803 or the Maternity Care Coalition, 1710 E. Lancaster Ave., #404, Paoli, Pa., 19301.