SEMINOLE — Capt. Robert Fine stood before hundreds of mourners in the Baptist church as he had a year before.
He was honoring Valerie Wells, a 49-year-old teacher at Admiral Farragut Academy. In May, he spoke at her husband's service. Both were parents, teachers and Christians.
Both succumbed to cancer before retirement age.
In front, their three children sat well pressed and well prepared: Jennifer, 21, Elizabeth, 20, and Michael, 14. "Last I was here was a year ago, speaking to the same family," the headmaster said. "It's been a test of faith."
Valerie Wells grew up as the daughter of a Baptist pastor who started churches in small towns in Illinois and Wisconsin. She loved music, learning the piano, guitar and clarinet. In college, she was a bubbly blond cheerleader.
As a teacher in Illinois, Wells first glimpsed her future husband as he coached students. They married and moved to Florida when Mike got a job at Keswick Christian School.
There and later at Admiral Farragut Academy, they raised a close-knit family. The daughters took classes and performed in Wells' musicals. Their brother played sports with their dad.
She was a mom to everyone. The boarding students at Admiral Farragut knew Wells was always in her classroom, ready to welcome them with popcorn and tea. When there was nothing else to do, she'd offer her assistant a nap on the couch.
Between raising three kids and working, Wells earned a master's degree in music at USF. A believer in challenges, she always asked her students to do more.
Wells gave Kathryn Thomas, 17, the role of Snoopy in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. When Kathryn asked how she could handle the responsibility, Wells asked if cookies would help.
This year, Wells picked the spring musical Once Upon a Mattress, an adaptation of The Princess and the Pea. But she fell ill at the end of the fall semester.
It was liver cancer. She hoped for a transplant, but the disease was too advanced.
Thin from chemotherapy, she traveled to the Cayman Islands. To share her faith in Jesus, she wrote "He is my hope" on a rock for strollers on the beach to see.
She updated friends on a Web site about her health.
"God is so good. I trust him and whatever he has in store. Of course I want to see my son graduate in May from 8th grade, Jennifer from college in June, and all three kids as they come to special times in their lives. But I just may have to watch from heaven."
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Ever the planner, she asked friends and co-workers to speak at her memorial service weeks in advance. She told them to make it dignified but not stuffy.
She even made an appearance at the service, conducting her choir on video. Her thin, graceful hands drew beautiful harmonies from the singers.
Heaven, the pastor said, is a place where there are no cancers, where doctors sit idle, where it never gets dark.
The three siblings stood strong at the microphone, telling the people seated in pews that they felt "faith and peace that she's with dad."
In her final production, the ending was bittersweet.
Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or firstname.lastname@example.org.