Ina Savage, 62, city teacher, Alzheimer's disease activist

December 03, 2003|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Ina Savage, a sociologist and city public schools language teacher who became an activist for Alzheimer's disease after the degenerative brain illness was diagnosed in 1995, died Friday at her North Baltimore home. She was 62.

Mrs. Savage was the subject of a 1997 article in The Sun and featured in a National Geographic magazine article on genetic disease. She was interviewed on Good Morning America, and featured in a television documentary in her native Brazil.

Born Ina Dutra in Rio de Janeiro, the granddaughter of a former Brazilian president, she received an American Field Service scholarship to the United States and graduated from Long Island's Mineola High School. She earned a sociology degree at Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, where she later was an assistant professor of sociology.

As a student, she served as social secretary to Allison Gordon, wife of U.S. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon, who served in Rio during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and was later president of the Johns Hopkins University. She also served as an interpreter for academics and officials visiting Brazil.

"From our earliest days in the Rio embassy, Ina was a blessing far beyond the call of duty," Dr. Gordon recalled yesterday from his home in Washington. "She not only helped ... my wife with Portuguese, but provided guidance on Brazilian customs and attitudes ... and the subtleties of the Carioca capacity to endure hard times in good spirit."

In 1965, she became a research fellow for a joint American-Brazilian U.S. Agency for International Development project, helping write a report on squatter settlements known as favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Family members said her team's 1967 report helped bring water and sewerage to these neighborhoods.

In 1967 she married Peter Savage, a Fulbright scholar -- and later a CIA official -- on assignment in Brazil, and she became a U.S. citizen a year later. "At last, as a U.S. citizen, I can speak my mind on politics, live under the rule of law and vote," she said during talks to students and friends.

From 1972 to 1978, she and her husband were assigned to Buenos Aires, where Mrs. Savage worked for the U.S. Embassy as an interpreter for visiting American dignitaries.

"In the midst of economic and political chaos of the final Peronist years and the military anti-terrorist campaign that followed it, she befriended Jorge Borges, the Argentine author," said her husband, Peter. "He was enchanted by Ina, who was so well-read."

During a period of anti-terrorist violence, she and her husband helped several Catholic clergy, held suspect by the military government, escape from Argentina.

After moving to Baltimore in 1978, she enrolled in a modern languages and linguistics program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she earned a master's degree and was certified to teach Spanish and French. She taught at City College and Roland Park Middle School but lost her job in 1992 when she began displaying signs of the as-yet-undiagnosed disease.

After the diagnosis, Mrs. Savage interpreted for the Kennedy Krieger Institute, Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Maryland Center for Occupational Therapy. She also served on the parish council at St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church and was a volunteer at the Julie Community Center in East Baltimore.

"At first, when I knew it was for keeps, I [kept] a stiff upper lip," she told The Sun in 1997. "I went up on the balcony on the second floor, in privacy, to cry. I thought it would be a healthy thing to do, you know, to mourn a piece of your anatomy."

In news media appearances, she displayed her self-deprecating humor, as when she answered a complicated question from her Good Morning America interviewer by saying, "I really can't remember that question because I am playing the game of life with only half a deck."

She gave talks on Alzheimer's awareness, and at fund-raising events for the Central Maryland chapter of the Alzheimer's Association -- at one of them, starting her speech by saying that "Alzheimer's can give you some advantages; for example, you can hide your own Easter eggs."

"She was so vivacious. You could see her complex sense of humor. She could really let you have it," said Dr. Ann S. Morrison of the Johns Hopkins Medical School's Alzheimer's Research Center. "I'd put her at the top of my list of favorite patients."

Mrs. Savage joined the Morning Out Club from the Keswick Multi-Care Center for those with early Alzheimer's. She was quoted in The Sun, after attending a musical program, that it was "the best piano concert I'm ever going to forget."

She could never understand why people with Alzheimer's would shy away from publicity because, as she told a reporter, "If my story can be of help to others, then I will tell you all the gory details. Johns Hopkins has asked for my brain because of the early onset of my Alzheimer's, and I will donate it to them because it might save my three daughters from this curse."

A memorial Mass will be offered at 11 a.m. Jan. 10 at St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church, 740 N. Calvert St.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by daughters Serena Savage of New York City, Lina Savage Moscarella of Boulder, Colo., and Pauline Savage of Baltimore; and a sister, Any Dutra of Rio de Janeiro.

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