OXFORD — A distinguished Granville County family name is now hurtling through space, destined to take its place a million miles from Earth and write a new page in the annals of space exploration.
The James Webb Space Telescope was launched on Christmas Day bearing, not gifts from the Magi, but a payload of scientific equipment designed to reveal secrets sequestered in the far reaches of the universe.
It also bears the name of a son of Oxford. James E. Webb was one of five children of John Frederick Webb, who served for 28 years as superintendent of Granville County Schools and for whom J.F. Webb High School is named.
All three sons — James, Gorham and John Frederick Jr. — attended UNC Chapel Hill and served in the military. The daughters — Edith and Olive — attended the North Carolina College for Women, now UNC Greensboro.
James Webb was born in the Tally Ho community in Granville County and lived and went to school in Oxford. He had a distinguished career in the private sector and in government, beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1960s, including service in the U.S. Marines during World War II.
But it is as administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that he is best remembered.
Tapped for the position in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, Webb guided NASA through the Apollo program, resigning at the change of administrations only months before Neil Armstrong took his “giant step for mankind” onto the surface of the Moon in 1969.
Webb had been reluctant to accept the appointment as director of NASA. Asked in a 1985 interview what changed his mind, he described meeting with President Kennedy and said, “Well, how could you turn down the president of the United States when he says, here’s exploration, reaching outward from the Earth, which involves great national and international policy questions? ‘I want you to handle it because those are the policies that interest me in my job as president.’ ”
Webb took the job.
Webb’s daughter, Sally, who now lives in California, said she finds what he did with NASA incredible, pointing out that Webb’s college degree was in education. He had no science background, although “he did a lot of studying on his own.” In addition, she said he had to deal with some big egos among the scientists and astronauts he worked with.
“He had to balance that stuff,” she said.
What stands out, she said, was his integrity and his honesty. “He was very patriotic,” she said, and “he loved North Carolina.”
Kathy Webb, daughter of John Frederick Webb Jr., said, “I grew up hearing about Uncle Jim. He was like a role model.”
She recalled visiting with her uncle after he had retired and was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. She asked him if he thought there was life on other planets. “He talked and talked and talked and never answered the question.”
The James Webb Space Telescope uses infrared technology, which will allow it to see objects farther away and more clearly than the Hubble Space Telescope. It may help scientists observe the first galaxies formed after the Big Bang and determine how they evolved and how planets were formed.
And it might provide an answer to that question Webb didn’t answer for his niece about the possibility of life in those far away systems.
Webb received many honors for his career, perhaps none more meaningful than having a historical marker placed in front of C.G. Credle Elementary School on College Street in Oxford. It reads: “James E. Webb 1906 — 1992 Led NASA, 1961 to 1968, during Mercury, Gemini, and early Apollo. He est. Johnson, Kennedy space centers. Lived 1 blk. W.”
Sally Webb was there in March 2019 for the dedication of the marker. “I was touched.” she said. “He never knew about it.”
He had died in 1992.
Now the name that first saw the light of day in Tally Ho is on its way to deep space. As Mark Pace, history specialist with the Richard H. Thornton Library, said, “He came from a small place and did big things.”