There was one thing Jim Place always could be sure of.
Whenever Tom Webb came in and spoke to the class full of school teachers taking his “Character Education” course at the University of Dayton, there would be rapt attention during the lecture and a mad dash come lunch hour.
“The teachers could sit wherever they wanted and they all wanted to sit with Tom,” Place said with a laugh. “You couldn’t get a seat at his table. And whatever topic they brought up, he could speak on it.”
Place – himself a longtime educator and football coach in the Miami Valley – called Webb his mentor and has said, “He was a piece of living history…A true Renaissance Man.”
That’s not an exaggeration:
⋅ Webb could talk about education. Place said he was “the first African American” to complete graduate school at Notre Dame when he got a master’s degree in chemistry. Webb then spent 37 years as a Dayton Public Schools educator, serving as the principal at Roosevelt, Roth and Dunbar high schools as well as Longfellow Elementary.
⋅ He had quite a resume in sports. A multi-sport college athlete, he’s in the Alabama A&M Hall of Fame. He toured with the barnstorming Harlem Magicians basketball team, was a catcher in the minor league organizations of the Dodgers and Cardinals and was inducted in the Hall of Fame of the Dayton Colts semi-pro football team.
He put together some of the best coaching staffs in DPS history, bringing Tom Montgomery up from Alabama to coach football at Roosevelt, Roth and Dunbar and bringing in Mike Haley to coach basketball. Both ended up Ohio high school hall of fame coaches.
He helped launch the popular Roosevelt Relays and in later years he and wife Eliza served as guiding lights for several black Dayton Flyers athletes.
⋅ Webb could speak on matters of race and social justice. He grew up in the Jim Crow South – he was from Gadsden, Alabama – and in the mid-1960s when he already was living in Dayton he returned to Alabama to register black voters in the face of threats by white groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
And in the early 1970s, as the courts pushed Dayton to integrate its public schools, he took a leading role.
⋅ As for that Renaissance Man resume, he was an avid photographer, once ran a record company that had the Ohio Players and Slave under contract and once owned a plane and did aerial stunts. According to Montgomery he also played the saxophone.
⋅ And then there’s the subject of love. He met Eliza Bates at Alabama A&M, where she was on a music scholarship. She played the clarinet in the band and also was voted Miss A&M in 1954.
He played the trombone … and the field.
At least that’s how Eliza once explained it to me when I visited them at their home.
“He was too fast for me back then, I told him to get lost,” she smiled.
“Once I got on her trail, I didn’t give up,” Tom countered.
After he graduated with a chemistry and physics degree he got a job teaching school in, of all places, Eliza’s hometown of Sheffield, Ala.
“One day I came out of the barbershop there…” Tom grinned.
“And I waved at him and hollered and after that I couldn’t get rid of him,” Eliza smiled.
They married in 1956 and were wed 64 years until Tom passed away on Tuesday.
He was 86.
Funeral arrangements are pending, but along with Eliza, he is survived by their daughter Ava, a Chaminade Julienne and Ohio University grad who retired from the U.S Air Force as a colonel, as was her husband Kenneth Sharpless. Their son – Kenny – is a singer and songwriter of note who also is an adjunct music professor at Shenandoah University.
With a resume like that, it’s no surprise that just three years ago Tom Webb was named one of the Top Ten African American Males in Montgomery County by Parity Inc., the non-profit organization that celebrates role models, mentors and philanthropists.
“We lost a good one!” Place said the other day. “There wasn’t a better man than Tom Webb.”
Montgomery quietly agreed: “I loved that man like he was a blood brother and a father figure.”
Although Tom and Eliza moved to Dayton in 1964, he never forgot his Alabama roots.
When he went back in the summer to register voters, he used his mother in law’s car: “I didn’t want to be driving around doing that with Ohio license plates.” At night, he stayed in a house guarded by dogs and men toting shotguns.
For 35 years he and Eliza put on an annual fish fry at their home to raise scholarship money to send local students to Alabama A&M.
Webb did all he could to help young people blossom.
“When he spoke to teachers, his main theme was ‘know the students, win the students,’” Place said.
“He said he used to tell his teachers: ‘The first two days of school, I don’t want any lessons taught. Just get to know your students. If I walk in and you have a textbook out, you’re in trouble.’”
Webb was at the forefront of Project Emerge, which tackled the high dropout rate of urban students. He set up work study programs, found ways for students and teachers to sort out differences in less adversarial ways and had an on-site nursery to assist students who already had had a baby.
Twin brothers Albert and Alfred Powell – both longtime DPS coaches and educators who were Dunbar students when Webb was the principal – have stories about him showing up at students’ homes to help their families and reaching into his own pocket to pay for hungry kids’ lunches.
Alfred recounted how Webb and former Olympian Lucinda Adams, also a DPS educator, got speakers like Olympic greats Rafer Johnson and Wilma Rudolph to visit Dunbar.
Then there was football practice.
“We had never seen anything like him,” Albert once told me. “He comes to football practice and the next thing he’s lined up in the backfield and coming at us hard.
“I was a sophomore linebacker and he comes up the middle and ‘BOOM!!!’ Oh my goodness, I saw stars. You didn’t mess with Mr. Webb. He was just as tough as you thought you were tough.”
Webb told me how his Alabama high school football team had beaten an opponent on the road to qualify for the state tournament. Because of the lengthy bus ride and the celebration that followed, he hadn’t gotten to bed until 3 a.m. that Sunday morning.
And when it was time to go to church, he was too tired and hadn’t gone.
Afterward, his father informed him he would not be attending football practice in the week ahead – nor the state title game, saying:
“If you can’t make it to church then you can’t make football either.”
The coach came over and pleaded, but his dad didn’t budge and Webb missed the game.
He brought some of those hard-scrabble lessons to Dayton and students here learned from them.
For over four decades, Webb taught a UD course or was a guest lecturer and during those times he befriended some black athletes.
The tightest bond he and Eliza developed was with 6-foot-10 Flyer Devin Searcy, who played here from 2007-2011 and had Alabama relatives who knew the Webbs.
He referred to them as his “grandparents” and would go to their house for Sunday lunch and to watch sports on TV.
He kept in contact with them after he graduated, both when he played professionally in Europe and when had his own son.
I remember after one game here, Searcy cut short our interview because his “grandparents” were waiting outside for him.
“I owe a lot to my grandparents,” he explained. “They bring out the best in me.”
As epitaphs go, Tom Webb can have none better:
He brought out the best in everybody.
About the Author