“He’d sit down and help somebody with their homework or a project that was due – he might work with them ‘til 7 or 8 at night – and he’d give them a ride home if they needed it.
“He just understood kids and what they needed. He knew what sports had done for him and he really pounded the education with us.
“He was a real blessing to us at Roosevelt.”
Some 45 years after he bowled over Teddies’ tacklers, J. Thomas “Tom” Webb – now 84 – is still making an impact with students, said Jim Place, himself a legendary athlete, coach and administrator.
Place teaches Character Education classes at the University of Dayton and Webb is the star of his “Legends of Education” segment that also includes former Dayton Flyers coach Don Donoher and Frank DePalma, the superintendent of the Montgomery County Educational Service Center.
The class is made up of teachers getting recertification and Place said they can’t get enough of Webb.
And it’s the same for him. “I look up to the guy. He’s a mentor to me,” Place said. “He’s such a Renaissance Man. He can talk education, engineering, sports. He crosses all fields.
“He played with the Harlem Magicians and semi-pro football, too. He’s the first African-American to get a master’s degree (in chemistry) at Notre Dame. He marched with Dr. King in Alabama and he can talk about integration in the schools right here.
“He’s a living piece of Dayton history.”
On this Thanksgiving Day, as Powell and Place will attest, we should be thankful people like Tom Webb – and Eliza, his wife of 62 years and herself a teacher – are in our midst.
Webb’s exploits of long ago – as a four-sport standout athlete at Alabama A & M University – got him enshrined in the school’s hall of fame.
Tom Webb with Alabama A & M Hall of Fame ring. Tom Archdeacon/STAFF
Earlier this year he 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.
Between his Hall of Fame career and the Top Ten designation Webb spent 37 years as a Dayton Public Schools educator – including being principal at Roth, Roosevelt and Dunbar high schools and Longfellow Elementary – and 43 years as an instructor and lecturer at the University of Dayton.
In the process, he took on some of Dayton’s toughest issues.
He led the way through some of the challenges when the public schools were integrated. He was at the forefront of Project Emerge – which tackled the high drop-out rate among urban students – and set up everything from work study programs at schools here to an on-site nursery to assist students who had babies of their own.
He initiated a student court to enable students and teachers to sort out differences in a less adversarial way.
And in the community he became chairman of the board of both Project Cure, a non-profit drug rehab program, and the Drew Health Center.
Often he has used lessons from sports to teach others or guide himself.
And one of the most enduring came when he was the senior star of his Booker T. Washington High School basketball team in Gadsden, Alabama.
“We had gone and won the district tournament on a Saturday night – that put us in the state tournament — and I didn’t get back until about 3 a.m.,” he said. “The next morning my dad said, ‘Hey Bub’ – he called us all Bub – ‘Hey Bub, let’s get up and get ready for Sunday school.’ But I stayed in bed and finally said, ‘Dad, I’m too tired.’
“He said, ‘OK,’ but Monday morning as he gets ready to go to work he says, ‘I want you home at 3:30.’
“I said, ‘Dad, I got basketball …’
“And he said, ‘What time did I say?’ This was in the day when people didn’t tell you but once.
“He said, ‘You’ll be home at 3:30 since you didn’t go to church and you won’t be going to basketball all week, not until you go to church services next Sunday!’
“That meant I’d miss the state tournament, but he didn’t back down. The coach even came over and said, ‘Mr. Webb you know he’s a good boy and he’s doin’ so well.’
“And my dad said, ‘This is the reason he’s doing so well. Sorry Coach, he’s not gonna play and we can just forget this conversation.’
“That discipline, that lesson, is something I‘ve carried with me and tried to pass on to the kids over the years.”
Webb grew up under the Jim Crow laws in the South:
Separate water fountains were designated “White” and “Colored.” Lunch counters served only whites. Blacks were forced to sit in the balconies of movie theaters and everything possible was done to keep them from voting.
The sporting arenas were segregated, too.
“In Alabama, it was against the law for a white team to play a black team,” he said.
His mother was a school teacher and he credits her for nurturing his appreciation of the classroom and pushing him toward Alabama A & M.
Although a standout athlete there, he met his match in Eliza Bates, who had come from Sheffield, Ala. on a band scholarship – she played clarinet — and in 1954 was named Miss A & M.
She caught the interest of Webb – who played trombone in the band – but now recalls with a laugh: “He was too fast for me and I told him to get lost.”
Tom and Eliza Webb — married 62 years — in their home off Gettysburg in West Dayton. Tom Archdeacon/STAFF
Webb grinned: “Once I got on her trail, I wouldn’t give up.”
After he graduated with a chemistry and physics degree, he got a teaching job in Sheffield, Eliza’s hometown.
“One day I was coming out of the barbershop …” he smiled.
Eliza finished the story: “I waved at him and hollered and after that I couldn’t get rid of him.”
With a National Science Foundation grant he got his master’s in chemistry at Notre Dame, where he said, “It was the first time I ever studied with white students or had white teachers.”
Later he got a master’s in education from Xavier.
He and Eliza married in 1956 and moved to Dayton in 1964, where he worked nights as a chemist for Chrysler and was a substitute teacher during the day.
The couple had a daughter, Ava, who in 1975 was part of the first graduating class at Chaminade-Julienne High School. At Ohio University she joined ROTC and went into the Air Force, where she toured the world and retired as a colonel. She and her husband, Kenneth Sharpless, also a retired colonel, have one son, Kenneth II, who’s making a splash nationally in the music world.
Although relocated to Ohio, Webb never forgot home and in the mid-1960s returned to South Alabama to register voters.
“I’d borrow her mother’s car because I didn’t want to be driving around there with an Ohio tag,” he admitted.
“And we stayed at a house where they had dogs tied around the corners of the property and men sat up at night with shotguns. They parked wagons and old tractors across the road to block the lane if someone tried getting in there at night.”
He took over as principal at Roosevelt after a student walk-out – precipitated by the firing of Art Thomas, the popular Model Cities education director – escalated into a disturbance that briefly closed the school.
Webb eventually won the trust of students and faculty with his roll-up-your-sleeves approach and those down home lessons he’d learned growing up.
He also believed in listening to students.
“When he was principal at Roosevelt, he told his staff that the first two days of school nobody would take a text book out,” Place said. “He said. ‘Every kid has a story and those first two days I want you to learn those stories. Learn who they are.’”
J. Thomas Webb who was principal when Roosevelt High School closed in 1975 talks Saturday, April 26 to former students spanning the years at a farewell remembrance at the school before demolition begins. Staff photo by Chris Stewart
When it came to discipline, Webb had a unique approach.
“I used to have eight aquariums in my office,” he said. “Kids would be sent to me and they’d slam the door and were ready to tear the place down.
“I’d say, ‘Sit down,’ and then, after a second, I’d go, ‘I’ll be right back.’
“I’d leave a while and when I came back, the kid would say, ‘Hey Mr. Webb, what kind of fish is that?’ I had crazy fish in there, clown fish, all kinds of stuff.
“It would diffuse them and then I’d say, ‘When you get done looking in there, tell me what you were doing upstairs. You seem like a nice guy. Why’d you get sent here?’
“And they’d go, ‘I know I shouldn’t have said what I did.’
“I’d say, ‘Well, if somebody does wrong, you know they’ve got to pay a penalty. What do you think I should do?’
“And they might say, ‘Aaah, you could give me five swats.’ Or they’d say, ‘You should call my mama.’
“And I’d say, ‘Well, OK, you recommended it and that’s what we’ll do.’”
But more than discipline, he offered friendship and opportunity to students.
For 35 years he and Eliza sponsored a gala fish fry in the backyard of their home off Gettysburg Ave. that included awarding three or four scholarships a year for local kids to go to Alabama A & M.
He and Don Mitchell launched the fabled Roosevelt track meet which used to award scholarships, too.
And as he was teaching at UD, he became a mentor to many of the black basketball players and he and Eliza invited them over every Sunday for lunch and to watch sporting events on a big TV in the basement.
The couple developed a special bond with former Flyers center Devin Searcy, who calls them “my grandparents.”
Today – married and with a young son – Searcy’s playing professionally in Europe, still contacts them almost daily and visits when he can.
When Place called Webb a Renaissance Man, it wasn’t exaggeration.
He barnstormed with the Fabulous Harlem Magicians, the Globetrotter spin-off led by Goose Tatum and Marques Haynes. He played for the baseball farm teams of the Cardinals and Dodgers and he’s in the Hall of Fame of the Dayton Colts, the semi-pro football team that toured the Midwest.
In Alabama, he once ran a funeral home and was a Methodist preacher.
In Dayton he said he once ran a record company that had groups like the Ohio Players and Slave under contract. He used to own a plane and did aerial stunts, is an avid amateur photographer and did all the electrical work on his home and the mechanical work on his car.
A year ago he had open heart surgery – one valve was replaced, two were repaired — and while that has curtailed some ventures, he still remains active.
The Monday I visited their home, he and Eliza had just spent the weekend at sports events, all of which they have season tickets to.
Friday it had been UD women’s basketball. Saturday they’d watched the Flyers men at UD Arena and Sunday they had been to Paul Brown Stadium to see the Cincinnati Bengals.
On this Thanksgiving Day their plan is to be in Phoenix with friends.
“I’ve got so much to be thankful for,” Webb said. “It starts with the lady here with me. And there’s our daughter and grandson, too.
“I’m thankful to be alive and still be able to give back to a world in which a lot has been given to me.”
As he was talking, his cell phone rang and he quickly checked it, thinking it might be Searcy calling from Turkey, where he plays for Mansia Buyuksehir in the Turkish Basketball First League.
After playing 130 games for the Flyers, the 6-foot-10 Searcy embarked on a pro career that in eight seasons has taken him to Japan, Russia, France, Cyprus and three different German teams.
Eliza said their connection to Searcy happened by chance.
When he came to UD from Romulus, Michigan in 2007, Eliza said they watched him play for almost a year before they learned his history:
“His family is from Alabama and his grandmother taught our daughter in kindergarten.”
“We adopted him,” Tom grinned. “And now I get a text or phone call from him almost every day.”
He pulled up some videos Searcy had sent of his little son, Hudson, crawling on the floor.
“I’d told the baby we’re gonna have a crawlin’ contest, but now they sent a video of him walkin’ and I wrote ‘em back and said ‘We’re calling the match off. He can run and I never could keep up!’”
Maybe, but don’t bet on it.
Like Albert Powell said:
“You didn’t mess with Mr. Webb.
“He could do it all.”