Thompson Webb was born in 1887, the eighth child of William Robert “Sawney” Webb and Emma Clary Webb. Thompson’s father founded Webb School of Bell Buckle, Tennessee, just after the Civil War. Prior to serving in the United States Senate, Sawney Webb guided his school to a national reputation with a strong emphasis on academic excellence and a rigorous student honor code.
Thompson graduated from the Webb School of Bell Buckle in 1907, and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill before beginning a career as a farmer in Southern California’s Coachella Valley. He married Vivian Howell in 1915. A failed onion crop in 1918 left the young family in debt and Thompson accepted an invitation to join the faculty at his father’s school.
While teaching in Tennessee, Thompson received a letter from Sherman Day Thacher, founder of the Thacher School in Ojai, California, telling him of an abandoned school in Claremont, California. With more applicants than his school could handle, Thacher encouraged Thompson to make a deal for the land and start a school of his own. In the fall of 1922 Thompson Webb opened Webb School of California with 14 boys and four teachers.
Thompson Webb imbued his California school with a uniquely western “unbounded spirit” as well as the same high standards set by his father’s school – educating young people in the highest traits of character and leadership and providing a superior academic foundation that continues to this day.
Thompson’s influence on education in America goes beyond the 40 years he served as headmaster of Webb School of California – he was instrumental in the founding and organization of the California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) in the 1940s. Thompson was also a vital force in the establishment of the National Association of Independent Schools, which was modeled after the California association.