IT WAS hard to buy presents for Mary Mahlman. She didn't want anything; she didn't need anything. The focus of her life was always on what others needed.

But her children hit upon a nifty way of getting her to accept gifts.

"We would say, 'Look, Mom, let us have a good time buying something for you,' " said her son, Edward Mahlman. "That worked. As long as she was helping others to enjoy themselves she was happy."

Mom probably saw through the ruse, because she was certainly no dummy, but if she did, she didn't let on.

Mary Mahlman, who worked as a typist for the Atlantic Refining Co., greeted customers in her brother-in-law's bakery, and wrote grants for the former Franklin Institute Research Center, died Wednesday. She was 87 and lived most of her life in South Philadelphia.

She was a member in good standing of the "Greatest Generation," the men and women who endured Depression and war and always found ways to survive and do the right thing.

"She was always thinking about the other person," said her son, a vice president and chief marketing officer for Philadelphia Media Holdings L.L.C., owner of the Daily News and Inquirer. "She was really amazing. She made it a kind of art form."

"Her hobby was making sure, no matter what the situation, that the right thing for that moment was done," he said.

Mary was born in South Philadelphia to Christopher and Mary Ellen Craig and was raised in St. Gabriel Parish. She graduated from St. Gabriel's School and John W. Hallahan High School for Girls.

Friends knew her as "Marita," a kind of blending of Mary and her middle name, Rita.

She worked for Atlantic Refining, at Broad and Spruce streets, for a number of years. In 1946, she married Louis Edward Mahlman, a World War II Navy veteran who, as a member of the crew of a landing craft at the Normandy Invasion, was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds.

She took time off from the world of work to raise her children, then went to the former Franklin Institute Research Center.

It was demanding work, sometimes requiring her to stay on the job until midnight to meet the deadline for a government grant proposal that then had to be whisked by courier to Washington.

Mary was a devoted sports fan, and in the days when the Flyers were the "Broad Street bullies" and tearing up the league, she and her staff would listen to the games while working on the grants.

She retired in the mid-'80s. Her husband died in 1990.

Mary enjoyed helping out at Kunberger's Bakery, run by Bill Kunberger, husband of her late sister, Margaret. Numerous family members pitched in there as well.

"She did a great job handling customers," her son said. "She really enjoyed that."

Mary extended her desire to make everybody happy to the kitchen. The meals she prepared for family gatherings consisted of strong basic Irish food.

"She had five different ways to prepare potatoes," Ed said. "She ran a lively kitchen."

Mary was proud of her Irish heritage and participated in the annual Donegal Ball in South Philadelphia. In fact, her son said he thinks she might have been queen of the ball at one point, even though her ancestors were from County Down.

She would painstakingly starch and iron her sons' surplices when they were altar boys at St. Gabriel, then sit back in the church during Mass full of pride.

"We looked great," Ed said. "She was proud of us."

At family gatherings, Mary was the listener. She didn't participate much in discussions of politics or current events. But she was certainly open to all viewpoints.

"She would listen and smile and say, 'I can see that point of view,' " her son said. "Then someone else would offer another opinion and she'd say she could see that point of view as well.

"And she meant it. She could see every point of view. But she had the wisdom to know that all such things come and go. The important thing to her was that her family was together.

"Stay steady and do the right thing and life will take care of itself was her belief."

Mary was a whiz at crossword puzzles. Even when her eyesight was weakened, she loved to do the puzzles. Someone would give her the clues and she would supply the answers and they would fill them in for her.

She rarely traveled. Her honeymoon was in Maine; she visited a friend in Florida, and attended Ed's wedding in Boston. That was it. "She would say, 'All I need is right here.' "

Besides her son, she is survived by two other sons, Louis, president of the United Way of Southeastern Delaware County, and Gerard, reference librarian at the Temple University Health Science Center; a brother, James Craig; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. She was predeceased by her sister, Margaret Kunberger, and brother, Christopher Craig.

Services: Funeral Mass 10:30 a.m. today at St. Gabriel Church, 29th and Dickinson streets. Friends may call at 8:30 a.m. Burial will be in Ss. Peter and Paul Cemetery, Marple. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the St. Gabriel Church Memorial Fund, 2917 Dickinson St., Philadelphia PA 19146. *