News of College Header 2001
  James K. Webb, 1934–2001

Jim Webb appeared on the Reed campus in 1965 as a new professor in literature and humanities and departed seven years later. His short career was memorable and controversial. Upon news of his death (April 26, 2001) from heart failure, former students, friends, and colleagues, including about 50 Reed alumni, gathered in Mill Valley, California, to hold an informal memorial service for “Spider God,” as Webb was affectionately named in a 1969 film satire. An altar was created around such relics asa cup of coffee and a half-smoked cigarette, a carved staff, crystals, and effigies of Chihuahua dogs.

Webb was valedictorian of his high school in El Paso, Texas, and interstate champion for both essay writing and mental math in the early ’50s; graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1956; took an M.A. at Columbia with highest honors; read Victorian literature as a Fulbright Scholar at Queen’s College, Cambridge; and completed course work for a Ph.D. at the University of Connecticut. This impressive scholarship was, however,balanced by an infectious sense of humor and a great flair for entertainment.

Webb enlisted collaboration from certain colleagues and creative students in preparing a famous series of lectures on Victorian times, which combined paintings, photographs, lithographs, music, and living tableaux. He also inspired discussions on original and unprecedented topics: gay literature, the literature of war, and the politics of psychedelia. In the film Spider God he parodied many aspects of academic life and deliberately mocked his own role as cult leader.

In his last three years at Reed, Webb began to hold classes at his home on Knapp Street. There the inner walls were painted black, and the windows covered with wallpaper, and even daytime classes were conducted by candlelight. A loft was converted into a jail, with wrought iron doors, perhaps as a mocking alternative to what he considered the drab and oppressive facilities of learning institutions. Then, in 1971, Webb launched a protest against a proposed candidate for the Reed College presidency by renting a billboard beside a major freeway and filling it with an image of the candidate over the caption “Would You Buy A Used College From This Man?”

It was suggested to Webb that he was unlikely to be given tenure, because his presence on the campus could turn away potential contributors to the college. Webb responded with a proposal for a “College in Exile,” which he would conduct in Mexico; office conferences at Reed would be handled by means of a life-size puppet (which his friend Roger Law, eventual creator of England’s Spitting Image TV series, had offered to make) with a cassette player in its chest. (Tapes to be sent regularly from Mexico’s beaches.)

The administration declined Webb’s offer, and their stormy but exhilarating association was thus terminated. James K. Webb returned to his ancestral home in New Mexico, where for the next 29 years he cared for his aged parents, assisted homeless Mexican immigrants in finding lodging and employment, gave advice and consolation to many former students who kept in touch, raised goats and cactus and Chihuahuas, read widely, did crossword puzzles, and wrote poetry. He died in his chair in the wee hours of the morning, TV going, a book, a cup of brew, and a cigarette with a long ash on the table, and a tiny brass Buddha charm (given him by my daughter) around his neck. End of Article

Will Baker
Asst. Professor of Literature and Humanities, 1964–69


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