Thursday, April 26th, 2018

S Shopper Stories


ELLA WARD

Challenges early in life shaped this Voice for the People

by Rob Lauer


Chesapeake City Councilwoman Ella Ward strives always to serve as “A Voice for the People.”

Chesapeake City Councilwoman Ella Ward strives always to serve as “A Voice for the People.”

As a little girl, Ella Ward loved to read. Books were an escape from a childhood often filled with sadness.

“I was born in Murfreesboro, North Carolina,” she recalls, “but when I was three-years-old, my biological parents and siblings moved to New York and I was left behind in Suffolk to be raised by an elderly aunt.”

Through books, Ella found relief from the heartache and confusion of being separated from her mother. When she was old enough to attend school, teachers— noticing her sensitive nature and inquisitive mind—took her under their wings. Their kindness and caring, their tender connection to Ella, changed the trajectory of her life and is something for which she has reverence to this day.

“Some of my fondest childhood memories are of Mrs. Diggs, my first-grade teacher,” Ella says. “At age six, I wanted to be just like her.”

The teaching profession required a college education—something not easily obtained by an African American in the then-segregated South.

“My elderly aunt couldn’t read or write because she had to work as a child and wasn’t allowed to go to school,” Ella explains, “but she supported my studies. Because she was widowed and uneducated, she was used to hard work. We both had to work to make ends meet. I had my first job at age 10, ironing clothes for people. I earned two dollars a week. I kept working all the way through high school, but I still threw myself into my books. I studied hard and graduated from East Suffolk High as Valedictorian.”

During her high school years, Ella also found her voice.

“In my freshman year, I won first place in an oratorical contest—beating all the older students,” she recalls in a tone of amazement. “My speech was about the need for social change. This was still the era of Jim Crow—of separate but equal. Wanting to change that was the beginning of my political awareness.”

Ella’s academic achievements earned her a scholarship to Norfolk State University. When a sophomore, she married her childhood sweetheart, Herman L. Ward, and joined him for a year in Germany where he was stationed with the military. 

“When we returned, I reenrolled in Norfolk State and focused on my studies in order to keep my scholarship,” Ella remembers. “It was a stressful time. I got up at 4:30 every morning, got our baby washed, fed and dressed for the day. Then I had to catch three buses every day—one from Suffolk to Portsmouth, another from Portsmouth to Norfolk, and another to campus—and then three back home.”

The hard work paid off: Ella graduated Valedictorian again and, despite the year in Germany, graduated on time. The triumph was bittersweet. In March of Ella’s final semester, her biological mother passed away.

“It was very sad because I was the first person in our family to finish college, and my mother was looking forward to that,” Ella says. “While I was in New York for the funeral, I received a call from Portsmouth Public Schools, offering an English teacher position at Wilson High School—even though I hadn’t yet graduated. I learned that I had made the highest score ever, up until then, on the National Teachers' Exam.”


 “The governor said to me,
‘I’m not looking for a top donor
for this position,
but for someone who knows education
and understands
what students and teachers
need to succeed.”’

—Ella Ward



Because of her high score, Ella received other job offers—including several from government agencies. But the young graduate’s heart was in education. She accepted the position at Wilson High School, developing a reputation for being a dedicated “no-nonsense teacher.” If there were disciplinary issues, Ella contacted the student’s mother. “I didn’t resort to suspension,” she explains. “I wanted to keep the student in the classroom, learning.” Teaching English and Journalism, Ella inspired her students to work hard and take advantage of opportunities. As a result, many received regional and statewide honors for their efforts.


Councilwoman Ella Ward (center) is surrounded by dedicated supporters. From left: Don Carey III, Lakeisha Carey, Dr. Sandi Hutchinson and Leon Hutchinson

Councilwoman Ella Ward (center) is surrounded by dedicated supporters. From left: Don Carey III, Lakeisha Carey, Dr. Sandi Hutchinson and Leon Hutchinson


During the course of her 35 year career in education, Ella’s efforts led her into working as an administrator in the Portsmouth Public School system. A resident of Chesapeake, she also served on the Fine Arts Commission and other municipal boards—all while earning four post-graduate degrees: a Master of Arts from Norfolk State University, a master of Science from Old Dominion University, as well as a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Studies and a doctorate from Virginia Tech.

When Chesapeake moved to having an elected school board in 2000, Ella ran for office—with her husband, Herman, serving as her campaign manager—and won. Her student-and-teacher-centered work caught the attention of Governor Mark Warner, who appointed her to the Virginia Board of Education in 2003.

 “The governor said to me, ‘I’m not looking for a top donor for this position, but for someone who knows education and understands what students and teachers need to succeed,’” Ella says. “I threw myself into making changes that would benefit all students and teachers.”

Her work led to her reappointment to the board by Governor Tim Kaine in 2007—the year after she was elected to her first term on the Chesapeake City Council. Until 2011, when her second term on the State Board of Education ended, Ella spent much of her time commuting back and forth between Chesapeake and Richmond. “It was all for our kids and their education, so it was extremely rewarding,” she insists.

Ella’s 12 years on the city council have kept her focused on Chesapeake’s future. Her work on the Hampton Roads Transportation Organization and as Chair of the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission gives her a broad perspective on how Chesapeake can join the region’s other 17 cities and counties in bringing that future to life.

Seeking re-election, Ella believes that certain things are necessary for a future that truly benefits the citizens of Chesapeake.

“I want to continue serving because I have a vision for diversifying our economy, improving transportation, supporting our active military and veterans, continuing to improve Chesapeake’s highly-praised public school system. I have always been a voice for the people.”

Service to others has been a theme throughout Ella’s life. The care and encouragement that she received as a child from her teachers, the no-nonsense nurturing that she later offered her students, the long hours of hard work to improve the lives of others, locally and statewide—these have been threads running through the fabric of her life story.

Ella believes that these same threads can connect the citizens of Chesapeake to one another and to a vibrant future that benefits all.




Ella Ward for Chesapeake City Council

757-488-6843
http://re-electellawardforcouncil.com/