secret_history (2006-01)

Eulogy For a Citizen

An appreciation of Robert Webb

by Jack Neely

The funeral last week was old-line Presbyterian: “A Mighty Fortress,” “O God Our Help,” readings from the Old and New Testaments. But at the reception there was a five-piece cool-jazz band. The standing-room-only crowd, a rare combination of elderly philanthropists, educators, some progressive politicians and at least one prominent rock ‘n’ roll promoter. The cultural span was a fitting tribute to a remarkable and often surprising man.

Bob Webb was born in Fort Sanders in 1919, son of prominent juvenile-court judge Clary Webb. But he took more after the grandfather he was named for, William Robert “Sawney” Webb, who founded the Webb School of Bell Buckle, Tenn., a boys’ boarding school once legendary for its ironclad honor code.

He suffered polio as a child, which left him with a lifelong limp. After graduating from Bell Buckle, he attended UT and, despite his disability, joined the marching band and became captain of the swim team. He served in World War II, then earned a master’s in education, and went back to Bell Buckle to teach. A dispute with the administration led him to move to the Webb School of Claremont, whose progressive ways suited him better.

He started his own Webb School of Knoxville in September of 1955, teaching classes to a handful of unruly boys in the basement of Sequoyah Hills Presbyterian Church. His intention was to improve the quality of education in his hometown. At a time when American education was regarded as inferior to Sputnik-era Soviet education—the “Why Can’t Johnny Read?” era—improving education at all levels carried some moral urgency. Webb added a Girls’ School and then moved to the current campus out west in 1959.

Some suspected Webb was a white-flight school, but among Southern private schools Webb was a leader in racial integration; the school declared an open-door policy in early 1965, and before a convention of Southern private-school leaders in Chattanooga in 1969, Webb himself gave a controversial speech in favor of private-school integration.

When I knew him in school—and to suggest that I knew him then would be an exaggeration—he was a stern, aloof, sometimes forbidding character, qualities that are helpful when you’re telling funny stories. His deadpan delivery of some Thurberesque tales in daily chapel exercises was something even the cool kids looked forward to.

My encounters with him were rare, and intimidating. When I graduated, barely, I was surprised he smiled. Maybe, I thought, he was glad to be getting me off the premises. I didn’t expect to see him again in my life. For more than a decade, maybe 15 years, I didn’t.

It may have been around 1990 that I saw someone who looked a whole lot like old Bob Webb, walking on Market Street, near Church. He looked to be the same age he always had, about 53, walking with the same hitch in his step. Sometimes a disability can minimize the effects of age. Most people, as they get older, change their walk; they get slower, their pace shorter. Bob Webb kept the same distinctive gait his whole life. Even in his 80s he never seemed like an old man.

Anyway, I would have been about as surprised to see Bob Hope. There are people you just don’t expect to see downtown. I didn’t know he’d retired years earlier as a suburban schoolmaster; he was already becoming a major figure in the cultural evolution of his hometown.

Soon after, he showed up at a talk I was giving about Knoxville’s bohemian subcultures, in which I mentioned Eleanor Audigier, a Knoxville art collector of the impressionist period. When you talk about somebody who moved to Europe before World War I, I figure, you can pronounce her name however you want to. After the talk, Bob Webb came up and politely and very discreetly, almost under his breath—there were other people there, after all—corrected me. He knew more about Madame Audigier than I did.

We struck up a friendship based on our several shared interests. He was deeply involved in projects that were dear to my heart: the Bijou Theatre and the Museum of East Tennessee History. I sometimes had to remind myself that he was the same fellow. He seemed like a more cheerful, easygoing and, strangely, younger man than he did when he was in charge of a school. Whenever I introduced him to someone who’d grown up in Knoxville thinking of Webb School as a symbol for one thing or another, they’d stare at me afterward: He’s that Webb? The fact that the guy who founded Webb School was still afoot in Knoxville, attending outdoor festivals, drinking wine at receptions, and approachable, was dependably surprising.

For some years he kept a modest office in the front of the old Bijou Theatre, a place close to his youth, and led some of its major fundraising campaigns.

He led the establishment of the first-ever Museum of East Tennessee History, in the old Custom House. It was an interesting collection, and a great amenity—its only problem was that it seemed a little cramped. Bob Webb was at the forefront of expanding the history center, with gracefully consistent architecture, to twice its size.

It’s ironic, considering his vigorous efforts, that at the end of his life the two projects with which Webb was most intimately associated in his later years are both in a kind of limbo. In spite of downtown’s obvious revival, the Bijou closed, in the midst of dire financial problems.

The history museum closed for remodeling at the end of 2003, promising to reopen in much-larger quarters soon after addition was completed as it was in early 2005. However, the museum has not yet reopened, and though some interior work is said to be imminent, the museum’s opening in the year 2006 is still theoretical.

The Bijou is undergoing the long-delayed final stage of renovations that began in the 1990s, and is expected to reopen in April, though no specific shows are yet announced.

Supporters of both the Bijou and the history museum are confident that 2006 will be a good year for each. The most fitting memorial to Bob Webb I can think of would be to finish them well.