By Connie Morrison —
Shore native and longtime Nandua educator and forensics coach Carla Savage-Wells, 61, died Sunday at her home in Virginia Beach.
Savage-Wells had been battling cancer and confronted the challenge as she did everything: with strength, dignity, and style.
She posted prolifically on social media, a practice that continued throughout her chemotherapy and hospital stays. The selfies and inspirational quotes that fill her Facebook timeline convey wit, wisdom, warmth, and faith.
Friends, extended family, and former students flocked to her side in her final weeks, all duly documented on Facebook until she became too ill to keep up.
Among those remembering Savage-Wells was Gov. Ralph Northam, a former high school classmate.
“About two or three weeks ago, I texted back and forth with Carla and she told me that her numbers didn’t look good, but I think she was at peace and knew what she was up against,” said Northam.
“She was obviously very personable, as most people remember, and she was a cheerleader, and we just became natural friends,” he said. “And even after I left the Shore, she taught at Nandua … and she invited me a couple of times to speak at their graduation, and just was very highly respected by the students.”
Northam also remembers her as a fierce and loyal friend. “… When my crisis, whatever you want to call it, with the yearbook came up in February of 2019, she stood up for me and defended me for who I was and who she knew me to be, and I just really appreciated that.” Northam was referring to an interview Savage-Wells gave to CNN’s Chris Cuomo.
Savage-Wells gave herself fully to every pursuit, whether working with students in the classroom, pulling together Black history exhibits as part of her Why, Yes! consulting business, acting and singing at North Street Playhouse, or any of numerous other activities she undertook took with passion and adeptness.
In 2016, she began writing periodically for the Eastern Shore Post, adding columnist to her portfolio of accomplishments. Her upbeat writing invoked readers’ best inclinations, tapping into shared experiences that bind us all in the human condition.
She is perhaps most widely known for her contributions in the field of competitive high school forensics, coaching the Nandua team in consecutive regional championships and a state championship in 2010. Her successes earned her a recent induction into the Nandua Athletic/Academic Hall of Fame.
“She came to work for us in 1996,” said Accomack Schools Superintendent Chris Holland, noting her 22 years of employment with the school division. “She was a great teacher. She put us on the map with forensics,” he said.
Savage-Wells left ACPS in 2018 and began teaching at Virginia Beach Public Schools.
Holland recalled that her mother, Rozelma Savage, was also an educator. Savage taught first at T.C. Walker Elementary School, then transferred to North Accomack Elementary after schools were desegregated in 1970. She died in 2005.
“I know her mother would be proud of what she’s done in education,” Holland said.
But more than the honors, awards, and GPP, as she liked to call the “gold-plated plastic” trophies, her legacy may be best seen in the students she coached in poise, elocution, and sportsmanship, reflecting years later on how she helped to shape their lives.
“If only those banners could show how many of us you not only coached into forensics success, but college and career success as well,” commented former student James Lawrence, writing on a Facebook page dedicated to Nandua forensics about the championship banners that hang in Nandua’s auditorium.
“She’s been such an amazing mentor and friend to every one of her students,” said former student Vashti Harrison, author of nationally acclaimed children’s books, including “Little Leaders, Bold Women in Black History.”
“She nurtured my creativity and passion for storytelling well beyond high school and I’m so lucky to have been able to share so many parts of my career with her: from forensics to filmmaking and now writing for children.
“She knew long before I ever did that children’s storytelling would be a good fit for me and (I) will forever be grateful for her guidance,” Harrison said.
The talent, confidence, and character Savage-Wells helped students discover and hone are on full display in a video some of her former students made when they heard about her selection for the hall of fame. Excerpts from a few of their tributes, along with each student’s high school class, follow.
“Everything you have taught me, I have taken with me to my career as a college professor now. ” — Meg Tucker O’Neill, 2003.
“I can barely tell you how much, every day when I walk into a room and I feel composed and I have a message that I can deliver with confidence, that is you. That is your influence on my life. It has led me to many wonderful places. And now every time that I help another student feel confident, that is also you.” — Cora Ann Johnston, 2004.
“I hope you’re aware, we’re better, more confident people having had you as our coach, and I hope this award comes with some gold-plated plastic.” — Clay Reese, 2005
“Your guidance and mentorship on and off the team has had a lasting impression on my life and I am forever grateful.” — LaRhonda Fletcher, 2006
Savage-Wells was preceded in death by her parents, Rozelma and Harold Savage, and a brother, Craig Savage.
She is survived by her husband, Norm Wells, and a daughter, Sheridan, both of Virginia Beach.
Funeral arrangements were unavailable as of press time Thursday.