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Sprague Remembered

Just last Wednesday, Linda Whitfield, director of middle school instruction for the Fairfax County Public Schools, had seen Nancy Sprague, the school system's chief academic officer, and by Friday had received another six e-mails from her colleague.

"She was doing well. She was very upbeat," Whitfield said.

Sprague, 59, died later that night. The City of Falls Church police responded to the Sprague home at 12:01 a.m. Nov. 1 and have attributed the death to natural causes, said Dionne Williams, the city's communications director.

"It's a shock, a total shock. Even today, nobody could believe it," Whitfield said Monday. "It's like it's not real. It hasn't sunk in yet."

Sprague had been engulfed with the Halloween spirit, going so far as to bring a blow-up Frankenstein to work and having co-workers pose with it for photographs. She was also busy handing out candy to all the trick-or-treaters making the rounds of the Burkholder Center, where her office was located.

"She looked like the picture of health," said Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech.

At home, Sprague's happy mood continued, handing out candy to the neighborhood children then going to bed to read. A couple hours later, her husband, Stephen, went to check on her and found her unresponsive.

"So far there is no indication this is the same thing as with her daughter," said Marty Abbott, the director of high school instruction. Sprague's teen-aged daughter, Elizabeth, was found dead by a roommate at college after apparently dying in her sleep several years ago.

Elizabeth Sprague had been born with a heart condition, said Whitfield.

Domenech said the last couple of years had been tragic ones for Sprague, but that she never let her personal life get her down.

"Over the last couple of years she suffered her own bout with cancer, her own daughter passing away, surgeries on her knee and shoulder, her husband had been ill, and her sister passed away last spring," Domenech said. "Any one of these things would make a person buckle. I never saw her with her head down, never defeated. She was always up with a smile on her face. I wonder where she got her strength."

IT IS THAT STRENGTH that many of her colleagues say they will remember most.

"My entire definition of strength," Francisco Millet, director of the English for speaker of other languages program, said of Sprague. "And character, strong character. She was a person who knew what she believed in and was passionate about it."

That passion was the students of Fairfax County, say her co-workers. No matter what the situation, the one thing Sprague always inevitably asked was, "Is this what's best for the kids?" said Abbott. "We all knew the perimeters with which you worked with her, you had to be looking at what was best for the kids."

In a press release issued by the school system, Sprague, who came to Fairfax public schools in 1990 from Falls Church City Schools, is credited with creating or helping to implement several programs including the middle-school model; the current English for speakers of other languages program and its transition program for older students; adult alternative high schools; the International Baccalaureate program; high-school professional technical academies; Project Excel and a summer school larger than most school systems in the state.

"It's impossible to separate the quality educational program we have in Fairfax County from her," Millet said. "All that's good with Fairfax County's instructional program is because of her."

SHE WAS EQUALLY passionate about her family and friends.

"Dr. Sprague loved people and loved to have her family at her house for Thanksgiving ad Christmas," Whitfield said. "It was not unusual for her to have 25 to 30 people sleeping at her house at Thanksgiving or Christmas."

That feeling of caring was felt by her extended family at the school system, said Abbott.

"Undergoing all those tragedies made her more sensitive to what staff was going through," Abbott said. "My own father's funeral was two years ago the day she died. Nancy went to the funeral, then came over to the house and sat with my family, then she hurried home to the trick-or-treaters."

Sprague is survived by her husband, Stephen and son, Robert, as well as brothers, Fred and Paul Freitag.

Domenech said no decision has been made about whether Sprague will be replaced as chief academic officer, a position created just last year, or if the school system's leadership will be restructured.

"When I created the chief academic officer position and promote her to it, there was no question it was the job for her," Domenech said. "We didn't have a contingency plan for what if Nancy's not here."

Prior to the promotion, Sprague had been the assistant superintendent for instructional services. In addition, Sprague was an adjunct professor with the University of Virginia and a lecturer at George Mason University, University of Maryland and Florida State University schools of education. While with Falls Church, she was an assistant to the superintendent, K-12 director of instruction and clerk to the School Board. She had also been a social-studies teacher, and middle- and high-school principal.