Early on in his quest for fossils, our beloved Ray Alf set up a small museum in the basement of the Jackson Library with the purpose of telling the story of life. He created a time spiral made out of heavy wire along which were marked various events in the history of the planet. First, an oxygenated atmosphere created a basic prerequisite for life. Then came nucleated cells and sea creatures, followed by amphibians, dinosaurs and eventually mammals. At the very tip of his spiraled wire, he imagined a speck of dust that he would pretend to blow away at the conclusion of his many explanatory tours. “That,” he would tell his audience, “represents the entire time of recorded human history.” When his permanent museum was later built, an enlarged replica of this time spiral was installed there. Alf taught his students that life is short. Indeed, given his mentality of deep time, each of us exists for but a moment. Yet each moment offers opportunity to contribute. Regularly, he would challenge his students: “What are you going to do with your moment in time?”
To me, this question goes to the heart of what Webb is all about. What will each of our students do with their moment in time as students and as graduates? How will they make their time count? And how can we instill in them the values of moral courage, inner strength, fire and drive, and empathy to make them the kind of honorable leaders who typify our great school.
Looking forward to our institution’s approaching centennial celebration in 2022, it is time again to reflect on Alf’s seminal question. Here at Webb, what are we going to do with our moment in time? Recently the Webb Board of Trustees ratified The Centennial Strategic Plan – a vision for Webb and the Alf Museum that will chart our course. New habits of mind, those that make us capable of accessing, connecting and engaging with the global community, will be required.
As a former Latin teacher, I find it especially appropriate that our institutional mascot is the Gaul. Similar to Caesar’s Gaul, The Webb Schools are divided into three parts--Webb School of California for boys, Vivian Webb School for girls and the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology. The third component is what makes us most distinctive.
It is incredible to me that Webb is the only secondary school in the world with an accredited museum of paleontology, honoring a discipline that is just now blossoming into new and exciting subfields. The potential this represents is awe- inspiring.
Our little museum on the hill is booming. The most recent Hall of Life renovations, coupled with a major gift to support the research program through the museum’s endowment, have catapulted it into one of the exceptional museums in the Western Region. What it represents to our students is a resource like no other in terms of the study of earth science, original research, and the habits of mind so critical for thoughtful leadership. Dr. Alf’s passion was always in fostering adventurous ways of thinking—what we call “unbounded thinking.” His mind was devoted to what might be termed macro-history, or what he himself termed “total biology.” Today, that construct is referred to by others in his field as deep time. Here at Webb, it is often synonymous with deep thinking, both scientific and spiritual. Alf’s creed was not written in words, but rather in the grand laboratory of nature. Alf had a reverence for life, and not just human life. He appreciated the interconnectedness of all life forms that included even those long extinct.
Today this scientific and spiritual inquiry continues thanks to our museum. When freshmen go out to Barstow, and spend the day finding fossils 15 million years old, and then later that night, looking into the mobile telescope on a large industrial ladder 15 million light years away, or more, they can’t help but begin to ask Ray Alf’s seminal question: What are you going to do with your brief moment in time? It is the deepest of questions for all of us. How do we make our brief time here count?
While the museum has historically been viewed as an addition to the Webb community, I see it differently. I see the museum as the nucleus in our atom. To me, the museum represents how we do everything at Webb – how we approach every discipline – with an adventuresome spirit, and the willingness to get a little dirty. We don’t just memorize facts, we actually do things, and through original student research, we actually create knowledge. In doing so, we challenge conventional thinking, and learn to think differently – boldly and creatively. There are so many examples of alumni who exemplify this in their lives, regardless of their chosen discipline. At Webb, we learn to look at the world differently, and to have the courage to act on our beliefs. Ray’s museum has been all about this since its inception.
Thinking back to our classical roots, Thompson Webb’s father, W.R. “Sawney” Webb, favored an intense study of Latin at his Bell Buckle School in Tennessee. He believed in mental discipline – the conquest of the difficult by the alert, well-organized mind. When once offered a text book entitled Latin Made Easy, Sawney trumpeted, “I would not teach Latin if it were easy. I would teach something else that was hard.” Mastering paleontology is hard, but Ray Alf also showed it could be fun. If you haven’t done so, I encourage you to join us in Barstow each May for our Alumni Peccary Trip. There you will see that Ray’s tradition of teaching continues today with Doc Lofgren and Andy Farke. It’s the very best of Webb.
Webb’s new strategic plan calls for increasing and enhancing the capacities of the Alf Museum to create a world-class paleontology research and exhibit facility. The goal is to make Webb a nationally recognized center for innovation in science education. We will build on our strengths and in the process our entire program will be strengthened. In his day, Sawney Webb focused on Latin and Greek, but his school generated more Rhodes Scholars than any other secondary school in the United States. And to become Rhodes Scholars, his students had to know much more than just Latin and Greek. So it will be in our case as well. With the growing prominence of Alf’s living legacy, all of our academic ships will rise.
The past twenty years have prepared us. Thanks to our strong foundation undergirding our institution, we are well positioned to excel as never before. Let Ray Alf’s legacy and seminal question be our guide as we build a center of learning for high school students that is unparalleled.
Now is our moment. The next great advance in our development is about to begin.