Garris, transformative public servant, passes at 84

Published 9:15 pm Monday, August 28, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Wesley Floyd Garris, who served as an elected official in Windsor for 40 years, is remembered by colleagues and friends as a dedicated public servant, a true statesman, a good friend and mentor, a man of integrity and a natural-born leader who made Windsor a better place, driven to do so by his love for the town and its people.

Garris passed away Thursday, Aug. 10, at the age of 84 in his home with his family by his side.

The town of Windsor shared an official statement on Monday, Aug. 14.

“We are saddened to hear of the passing of Wesley F. Garris,” town officials stated. “Wesley was dedicated to the town of Windsor and unselfishly served the town for decades as mayor and a member of Town Council.”

The statement noted that he served on the Windsor Town Council from 1967-84, from 1988-96 and again from 2003-14. He was elected as mayor in 1996 and served in that role until 2002.

“During his 40 years as an elected official in Windsor, Wesley helped to navigate the town through several large changes, such as the renovation of the fire house into the municipal center and the annexation, which doubled the size of the town in 2001,” town officials stated. “The town has lost an incredible public servant and friend, and our thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”

Former Windsor Mayor and Councilman Marvin A. Crocker Jr. served with Garris for many years on the Town Council and recalled that Garris was always cordial and pleasant.

“He always had the town’s best interests at heart I believe,” Crocker said. “I enjoyed working with him. He really had a passion for the fire department and for the cemetery and other town business as well, particularly the budget.”

Crocker said Garris had an opinion and stuck to it, and he respected other people’s opinions as well.

George Stubbs, the current mayor of Windsor, described Garris as a good friend.

“I can’t say enough good about him,” Stubbs said, characterizing Garris’ passing as “a big loss to this town. He’s been a mentor to a lot of people, different ones, and I’m one of them.”

Stubbs said he began his political career in 2005 and has spoken with Garris many times since then, seeking advice on a variety of matters.

“Any time I wanted to sit down and talk about anything, (he’d say,) ‘Yep, come on over. We’ll sit in the backyard and talk,’” Stubbs recalled.

Former Vice Mayor and Councilman James Greg Willis had a similar mentor-protégé relationship with Garris.

“I really thought the world of Mr. Wesley. He brought me a long ways, mentored me through my early days on council, and I’ll forever be grateful for him,” Willis said. “Wesley knew it was to the benefit of the town that young politicians got up to speed as quick as they possibly could. So he would endeavor to get you up to speed as quickly as possible, and if you had questions… call him. His phone was always on. He was always available to you. … That’s just the kind of guy he was, because his heart was to grow and benefit the town.”

Former Windsor Mayor and Councilwoman Carita J. Richardson shared a variety of thoughts while reflecting on who Garris was, first highlighting his immense knowledge of the town.

“When I was elected mayor, he was actually my vice mayor, and that was such a wonderful thing because I really feel like Wesley Floyd knew more about Windsor, the past, than anybody did,” she said. “And being on council for over 40 years, that is an amazing amount of knowledge that we’re losing.

“But he was what I think of as a true statesman,” she continued. “His whole demeanor, he was a man you would describe as a man of great integrity. You knew when he told you something that you could count on it.”

She noted that he was mayor during the annexation that doubled the size of the town in 2001.

“I actually was not in the town of Windsor at that point,” she said. “I was annexed. And most of us really didn’t want to be annexed because the first thing you think about is, ‘Well, we’re going to have to pay two sets of taxes now.’ 

“But I listened to him, and he made a really great point, as usual,” she continued. “I didn’t know him very well at that point either, but I’ll never forget, he said that we have less than a thousand people in the town, and this was early 2000, and I think there were maybe 900 around that point. And he said, ‘We cannot survive as a town because we don’t have enough people.’”

She said that she understood what he said even more when she actually ran for council. 

“If you look at the finances, it just wouldn’t be feasible for that small number of people to have enabled the town to do and become what it has become,” she said.

A significant part of Willis’ view of Garris was forged in the crucible of the contentious annexation debate.

“We were on opposing sides of that situation and had many, many conversations as the council worked through the annexation process,” Willis said. “Mr. Wesley was kind enough, even though he and I didn’t see eye to eye, he would come by my office and pick me up to take me to those meetings, and then he would bring me home.

“So he was what I would call a true statesman, because you and he could be at bitter odds on a topic, but he was not going to hold that against you as an individual,” Willis added. “He was that kind of guy.”

Richardson said the annexation “was something that could have kept the town divided even up to now, but it didn’t, and his leadership was the reason why. You knew that when Wesley told you something that it was true and that he would stand by it. That’s why people trusted him.”

Richardson said that Garris had an amazing analytical ability.

“He could look at something and analyze it almost perfectly and bring out things that most people wouldn’t even think about,” she said. “So that was another gift that he had that was great that I relied on.”

Stubbs testified to Garris’ ability to accurately analyze the potential of developing local politicians as well. When people approached Stubbs about running for Town Council, Stubbs went to Garris and asked him to give his opinion of him.

“He said, ‘By all means, I feel that you would be a good council person,’” Stubbs recalled. “He said, ‘In fact, I think you can go further than that.’”

Richardson said the other thing she loved about Garris was his sense of humor.

“When you’re in a difficult situation, that is a great thing to have,” she said. “His wit was wonderful.”

She shared an example. 

In Windsor, the mayor does not vote unless the council’s vote ends up in a tie.

“I really didn’t think much about that when I became mayor, but I kind of liked the idea, actually, that I wouldn’t have to vote if it was on a topic that was contentious,” she said.

Additionally, she figured that if there was going to be a tie, she would know about it in advance.

But several months into her term, a 3-3 tie occurred in a meeting, and it took her completely by surprise.

“A bunch of the community people were really split, so there was one side of the council chambers that was for that, what we were voting on, and there was another side that wasn’t,” she said. “And I was pretty stunned. And I remember Wesley was sitting beside me. He leaned back in his chair, and he said, ‘Well, Mayor, this is why we pay you the big bucks,’ and everybody started laughing. And I went ahead and gathered myself and voted, but he just came to my rescue just like that, and it was wonderful.”

Willis said that Garris was “a true, strong Christian man and believed in what he said and what he stood for. … He was well-spoken, he was plainspoken, and he was not afraid of the repercussions of what he said, because he said what he meant. Generally, he was right with whatever he said. You could take it to heart.”

Richardson noted that Garris was “motivated by his love for the town and the people, and that was always uppermost in his decision making.”

Reflecting on Wesley Garris’ overall impact on Windsor, Richardson said, “I think the reason that our little town is one of the best places that people consider when moving to Hampton Roads is because of him and his leadership and the many things that he put into place while he was here as mayor and on council.”

Garris’ wife, Cynthia Keeter Garris, 82, passed away Wednesday, Aug. 16, less than a week after his death, and Richardson was among the many who fondly remembered Garris and his wife as an outstanding team.

“He and Cynthia were an amazing couple,” Richardson said. “She helped him out doing things in the community, and she was loved as well, so it just kind of shows you that in the world we live in that there are still people who are like that.”

Wesley and Cynthia are survived by two daughters, Susan Lynette Flemmons, of Glen Allen, and Amy Leigh Garris, of Smithfield.