Recently I had lunch with a Webb graduate from the 1940s, and we got to talking about Thompson Webb – the man, the husband, and the school founder. He told me a wonderful story of how he and his buddies, when they were caught causing mischief around campus, were assigned work crews which consisted of helping Dr. Webb lay the adobe bricks for his chapel.
I never tire of these colorful moments in the life of our school. Each morning as I greet students walking up the chapel path, I picture Thompson Webb working hard with his hands and his mind - sweating on a hot Southern California day as he laid his ultra-strong foundation for what would become the centerpiece of his campus. As the story goes, he actually ran a phone line from the administration building up to the construction site, and when prospective families visited, he would have the potential new student lay a brick or two as he conversed with the prospect and his family. When not using the energy of a potential new student, Thompson seemed to have plenty of “in-house” help from his boys who were in need of working off demerits – an endless supply of labor to be sure.
As I think about Thompson Webb laboring – day after day – to construct this spiritual place in the name of his beloved wife, I also wonder about the deeper messages being sent regarding his educational philosophy and his goals for his school in developing people of character. Think about it. In the time it took to build the chapel himself, he could have easily hired an outside company to do it much faster and without such hard labor. But he chose to do it with his own two hands and with the help of students.
Could it be that there was more going on up on that hill than just the construction of the chapel? I think so. I believe that, in building the structure the way he did, he was also defining the very essence of what Webb would stand for. His chapel, like his students, would have a strong foundation. The bedrock of his chapel (and his school) would be built with extra-wide adobe walls, a yard thick with rebar in the middle, to ensure maximum strength and flexibility. His chapel, like his students, would be built with great care over a period of years, so as to ensure it was done right, and that it was built to last. His chapel, like his students, would be molded and constructed by his own hands and those of his faculty and students, and not outsourced. His chapel, just like his students, would stand tall on the hillside, and would symbolize the values of the school long after it had been constructed. And his chapel, like his students, would represent a calling to serve others and to stand for something far bigger than any one student, faculty member, or headmaster.
There is a wonderful expression that Thompson Webb used to say – one which dates back to Sawney Webb and the Tennessee hill country – “Plain Living and High Thinking.” To me, the Vivian Webb Chapel represents this spirit of plain living and high thinking. By building the structure the way he did, Thompson was sending a message to the community. This is a place of Spartan mold where we use our hands, as well as our minds, to build honorable leaders. No doubt, Thompson was feeling some pressure to build a more extravagant campus, as many of his eastern boarding school colleagues had done. However, instead of following suit and erecting lavish facilities that sometimes resemble country clubs, Thompson decided to set the culture and tone of his school another way—by building a chapel with his own two hands. In doing so, he made a defining statement that reads—we are not in the business of seeing how comfortable we can make ourselves. Rather, Webb is an unbounded, substantive community that values lean living and the development of moral courage.
I love this about Webb – the man and the school. While today we do enjoy a beautiful and natural campus, one which embraces Thompson Webb’s educational spirit and the pioneer spirit of the American West, it isn’t overdone, and it is very much commensurate with the vision Thompson Webb established all those years ago.
Over the next six months, I will be traveling the country and the world to connect with Webb alumni, parents and friends. I look forward to this opportunity to converse with you and to think deeply about the school’s future. My obligation to Webb is to honor its history while building its future. We will build that future together, one brick at a time.