She was from St. Paul. He was from Minneapolis. The “Twin Cities.” A heavily populated metropolitan area. Highly educated residences. Land of 10,000 lakes. Cold winters. Northern accents. Catholic churches. Family.
Berea, Arkansas. 1949. Tall pine trees. Hot, humid weather. Back woods. Middle of nowhere. Nowhere! Population thirty people. Maybe! Hot humid summers. Southern drawls. Predominately protestant churches. No family.
What flows through the mind of a young female college student when she meets the love of her life? Is it fortune? Fame? City lights? Settle down near family and friends? Have a few kids? Grow old together? I’m quite sure settling down in a place called Berea, Arkansas does not give a guy a high chance of getting her to say yes!
Since 1899, Crossett Lumber Company, later to become Georgia Pacific, in Crossett, Arkansas began tapping into the enormous potential of rich resources called timber. By the end of 1900, the company owned almost 100,000 acres of timberland. Logging camps began to spring up throughout Ashley County. Berea, about thirty miles from Crossett, was an ideal place for a camp.
She met him at the University of Minnesota. Prior to meeting her, he joined the Marines. Wounded in the war, he received a Purple Heart. Both graduated. Her degree was in Education; His Forestry. She taught school in Nevada and while there, just for kicks, learned to fly and earned a pilots license. He received a master’s degree in forestry from Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut.
The founding fathers of Crossett Lumber Company, determined to develop an industrial Forestry Program second to none, formed a partnership with Yale University’s Forestry program, among others, to achieve this dream. They developed an internship with Yale intended to use forests to develop a perpetual cut, rather than the cheaper clear-cut process used today
He accepted an internship at Yale Camp in Crossett, Arkansas. While in this camp, he interviewed and got a job with the Crossett Lumber Company to run the Berea Forestry District. But he had one more important task to complete. He returned to Minneapolis to ask the love of his life to marry him. She said ‘Yes!” and they were married in 1949. She placed her faith in him and they moved to the deep, back woods of Berea, Arkansas.
It could have been a disastrous move for them. The people of rural Arkansas communities can be slow in accepting “foreigners” with their strange accents and different worshiping habits. To say they were fish out of water would be an understatement. Catholics living amongst Baptists; and Missionary Baptists at that! Northerners among southerners. College graduates. And did I mention they had those weird accents.
But south Arkansas had never seen the likes of these two unique young lovers, determined to make their mark in this small community.
The men of the forestry division took an instant liking to their new boss. Being a young newlywed from up north and a city boy at that, they helped him learn the ropes of country living. Growing a garden was a necessity. First, because it was economical. Second, they lived fifteen miles from town. The men took their lunch hours and off time to teach him proper gardening skills. She learned to can and freeze the vegetables. Soon they became full-fledged country folk.
She taught Home Economics in a small school in Fountain Hill, Arkansas, about ten miles away. In 1950, the babies started coming. And coming. And coming. Nine of them in all. Soon she could no longer teach and became a full-time mom.
Nothing seemed to slow them down. They jumped right in the middle of everything as if they had grown up there. He was a Boy Scout leader; she was Girl Scouts. Both were leaders in 4-H. They served on the County Fair Board. Their kids took part in band and sports and they were active in PTA.
Their leadership skills were never as clear as when they helped form a group called R.C.I., which stands for Rural Community Improvement. They helped to get a Community Building, which still stands today, where these monthly RCI meetings were held. I’m sure they conducted their business, but I know fun and games for the kids were abundant. The group won several state awards, including rural community of the year in the early sixties.
Of all the activities, none came closer to their hearts than church. As devout Catholics who lived thirty miles from the nearest church, their faith was consistently tested. But they never wavered. In the early days of marriage, a priest drove from Lake Village, Arkansas, a distance of about thirty miles, to their house so they could observe Mass.
They helped to build a Catholic Church in Crossett, Arkansas. This was located thirty miles from their home. About ten of those miles were on gravel. Imagine getting nine kids ready to go to church and actually making it on time. It required the kids to lay out their clothes on Saturday evening. On Sunday morning, they all loaded up in their old faithful station wagon. Attendance at Mass was mandatory. The first row of the church was “theirs.” No questions asked.
Knowing the toll the log trucks took on the gravel road of the community, they helped to get the road paved, a feat appreciated by all.
He loved and respected his wife. Her hobby was art. Realizing the tremendous time it took to raise nine kids, he brought in a housekeeper on the weekends. This gave her some private time and gave them opportunities to go play bridge or go out to eat with other couples at their favorite restaurant, Does in Greenville, Mississippi.
They held annual Christmas parties for their friends and co-workers. She was notorious for her famous eggnog. In the middle of Baptist land, she made Catholic eggnog and Baptist eggnog. The Catholic eggnog was always the first to go.
Visiting their home to play with their kids was extreme fun. She had such a wonderful way about making everyone feel welcome. He taught the kids to love and respect their mom and the kids knew punishment was the answer for any who did not follow that family rule. Heck, the visitors even knew that punishment could be bestowed upon them as well. But they rarely needed it.
Meals with a dozen people of various ages could be interesting. The person to the right or the left just knew to help with any spills or mishaps. It was organized chaos, but it worked.
Visiting grandparents that lived close to a thousand miles away in Minneapolis was an annual trip. Eleven people loaded into that station wagon, packed with tents and food. No seatbelts. No assigned seating. They noticed people counting to see how many people they crammed into that car. They made it a fun adventure as they camped along the way.
The kids were one of the first families to board the bus, since they lived so far away from school. Punctuality was important for this family since being late for them meant the entire bus was late for school. A benefit of being friends with one of the kids was a reserved seat waiting when it was time for you to board.
If monuments with faces carved in this wonderful Southeast Arkansas community existed, commemorating tremendous leaders who made a real difference in others’ lives, surely Bob and Shirley Webb would be there amongst the best. Two amazingly inspiring people who could have been successful anywhere they chose. I’m sure she did not envision the journey they would take together when she said “I DO” back in 1949. But no doubt in my mind, if you asked them if they would do it all over again, they would give a resounding, “YES!”
Today, all nine kids are married, and none are divorced. If alive, Bob and Shirley would have 26 grandchildren and 30 great grandchildren. That loving and faithful “I Do,” stated some seventy years ago, began with just two, has now turned into eighty other Webbs! The legacy of Bob and Shirley lives on, giving back in their communities and to others, but never forgetting to help the one to the left and the right, no matter how big or small the need.
I am so grateful for Bob and Shirley Webb. It took me many years to appreciate their impact on me and the community in which I was raised. While there were many strong leaders in our community, they stand out as some of the best of the best. They overcame so many obstacles that would have stymied most. Their determination to be good neighbors and make their community shine is beyond admirable. Their kids became our lifetime friends. They were an inspiration to so many people including myself. Their leadership style was awe inspiring. But most of all, their love for each other…ahh…. faith in their God and in each other…a true “Love Story of Amazing Faith” for all to behold!