Sawney's relative discusses Webb Schools' heritage
Posted November 13, 2009
Students at The Webb School in Bell Buckle were treated to a mini-history lesson Wednesday, Nov. 11, as a relative of William R. “Old Sawney” Webb discussed the heritage of The Webb School and its two namesakes, The Webb School in Knoxville and The Webb Schools in Claremont, Calif.
Visiting the Bell Buckle campus in honor of the 167th birthday of Sawney (The Webb School Bell Buckle’s founder) and the presentation of senior blazers to the graduating class of 2010, Julie Webb addressed the student body, recalling her time on the Bell Buckle campus as a young wife and dorm parent.
In 1949, Julie married Sawney’s grandson Robert “Bob” Webb, who was a math teacher at the time at The Webb School in Bell Buckle.
“We had it great – unlike most newlyweds, I didn’t have to cook or buy groceries and we didn’t pay rent,” she said. “Bob’s salary was $200 a month and, percentage-wise, we saved more money then than we ever did again.”
Julie and Bob’s daughter, Susie Webb Ries, was born in Bell Buckle. Susie, who now lives in Nashville, accompanied her mother to the school on Wednesday.
Bob went on to teach at The Webb Schools in California, schools founded by his Uncle Thompson Webb. Later, Bob moved back to Tennessee in order to start his own school—Webb School Knoxville.
“I’ve had the pleasure of being associated with all three schools,” Julie said.
According to Julie, Old Sawney’s passion for teaching produced a long line of Webb educators, including Thompson, “Son Will,” who succeeded Sawney at Bell Buckle, and her husband, who is the son of yet another of Sawney’s sons. Another grandson has been a college dean, four have been college professors, and two have been headmasters at independent schools.
Sawney’s idea of preparing boys for college was novel in 1870, Julie said.
“This was unique in the state at the time – no public schools to speak of and none whose aim was exclusively preparation for college,” she said.
Sawney moved the school from Culleoka in 1886 to Bell Buckle, because he “was unable to control the town’s (Culleoka) sale of beer and whiskey to his students,” she added.
Sawney’s passion for education not only impacted his sons, it left a deep impression on the boys who attended his school. According to Julie, early administrators at Vanderbilt University, which was founded in 1874, urged Vanderbilt graduates (many of whom were also graduates of The Webb School) to establish schools after Sawney’s model to serve as feeders for the university.
“More than 20 schools were founded by Webb grads in the next 45 or so years, mostly in Middle Tennessee,” she said.
Julie, who continues to live in Knoxville, said she treasures her memories at Webb Bell Buckle.
“I found the most fascinating people in the world right here,” she said. “There was Mr. Morgan, fabled science teacher, witty and friend to all. He had told the father of Phil Coop (current Webb Board Chair) that he needed to send Phil to Webb School. Aren’t we glad …. There was Mrs. Rosenberg. She and her husband, who had recently died, had narrowly escaped the Nazis in Vienna … She was everybody’s friend and had a bilingual cat who understood German, very impressive to all the boys and me.”
According to Julie, her husband’s plan to establish The Webb School in Knoxville was almost derailed. Upon returning to Knoxville from California in 1955, he began looking for a location for his new school. When his self-appointed deadline of Aug. 15 arrived and he still had no suitable location, Bob felt inclined to give up and move back to California to teach.
“I remember his dejection as he went to his temporary office in his brother’s church to give up his dream,” she said.
But a fortuitous phone call arrived that same day and Bob was invited to locate the school at the newly built Sequoyah Hills Presbyterian Church. Webb Knoxville opened on time with four students in the basement of the church.
Today, Webb Knoxville is a K-12 school with more than 1,000 students.
According to Julie, all three Webb schools share Sawney’s commitment to excellence in education, character and leadership development, and the honor code exemplified by the pledge, “I will not lie, cheat or steal.”
“For me, it has always been stimulating and inspiring to be a part of the Webb community. I am proud of what it stands for and I hope you are too,” Julie told the students.