Elva Coughlin Wells, 81, who guided Roosevelt High School as its principal through the crucial early years of racial integration, died of leukemia Sunday at her home in Chevy Chase.
She had been associated with Roosevelt since 1939, when she became assistant principal, until her retirement in 1958. She became the school's third principal in 1949.
When black students were admitted to all-white Roosevelt after the Supreme Court school desegregation decision in 1954, Mrs. Wells met with her students and put her position on the line with these words:
"I don't believe any student in this school has sufferd because we have taken in pupils of another race. If you feel you have a problem arising from the enrollment of these new students, don't allow yourselves to be swayed by anyone. Stand on your own two feet and bring your problems to me."
Roosevelt, a centrally located school at 13th and Upshur Streets NW, was one of first here to feel the full effect of integration. Its student body soon became predominatly black.
Mrs. Wells, who was known as a stickler for discipline, was able to avert trouble at first. Despite repeated attempts by students from a nearby school to obtain Roosevelt support in an anti-integration demonstration, no Roosevelt students defected.
Her students carried a special "Code of Conduct" card. It emphasized honesty, idustry, dignity, courtesy, promptness and loyalty.
In 1956, however, she set off a controversy when she told a House District subcommittee investigating desegregation that her problems with integration were increasing rather than lessening.
She complained of belligerence, sulleness, inpertinence and aggression among many of her students. Her testimony brougth an accusation from former school board member Wesley S. Williams that she was obstructing integration.
Four black teachers at Roosevelt immediately came to the defense of Mrs. Wells. They called her an able administrator, "understanding, helpful and objective," and offered her their unqualifed support.The white members of the school's faculty also gave her full support. School Superintend Hobart M. Corning consequently found she was "more than able to cope with her job and is doing it magnificently."
Within a year, she and her faculty, working in cooperation, reported substantial academic progress at the school and claimed it ranked with the three or four best schools in the city.
Born in Great Bend, Kan., Mrs. Wells came to Washington as a young woman. After earning a bachelor's degree from George Washington University, she was assigned to her first teaching job in 1920 at the old Business High School, forerunner of Roosevelt.
She ten taught in Kansas and Puerto Rican schools before returning here in 1929, where she taught history at the old Central High School until becoming assistant principal at Roosevelt.
After her retirement in 1958, Mrs. Wells went to Lebanon where she served for three years as dean of the Beirut College for Women until her final retirement, when she returned here.
Mrs. Wells, who has received a master's degree from George Washington University in 1938, was presented the university's Alumni Achievement Award in 1960.
She was a former president of the Women's University Club, a former elder of the Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church, and an active member of the Columbian Women, the Twentieth Century Club, the D.C. Republican Women's Club and the National and District Retired Teachers Associations.
She is survived by a son, Frederick U. Wells, of Rockville; a sister, Frances Garrison, and a brother, Daniel Coughlin, both a Florida, and five grandchildren.
The family suggests that expressions of sympathy may be in the form of contributions to the Elva C. Wells Scholarship Fund in care of the Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church.