I lost a friend last week. Lost him to pancreatic cancer.
He was more than a friend – more like the big brother I never had. And that doesn’t describe him justly. He was a mentor, a role model, the kind of man whose opinion you sought, whose counsel was valued, and whose approval was cherished.
His name was Jim Webb. And no other man, other than maybe my father, has influenced me more.
I first met Jim and his wife June in the Fall of 1970. I was a sophomore at Georgia Tech. My high school sweetheart — a dark-haired beauty named Tootie — and I had been dating for almost two years. We had hit a rough spot in 1970. I had become a born-again Christian. She was a cradle Catholic and struggling to understand how her boyfriend had suddenly transformed from a non-religious “nice guy” to a “let’s follow Jesus” disciple. We argued, debated, even broke up for a few months. Then a college friend heard about a Bible study being held at the home of a Catholic family named Webb in suburban Atlanta. Intrigued that Catholics might actually study the Bible, I suggested to my girlfriend that we go check it out. She refused, insisting I go first.
Jim and June Webb proved to be gracious hosts, and the Bible Study leader, Fr. Richard Kieran, a Catholic priest, provided insightful teaching. The next week, Tootie came along with me. How could we know that this would be the start of a lifelong friendship with the Webbs? Tootie would, in later years, point to that Bible Study as a turning point in her faith walk with Christ. It was during this study that she began to understand what a commitment to Christ really meant. No longer confused by the evangelical lingo or terminology I had been using, the proverbial light bulb went on as Fr. Richard communicated the same thing I had been saying but in language more familiar to her. Her commitment to Christ lasted a lifetime through our marriage, five children, and her career as Nurse Manager of a crisis pregnancy center until her death in 2011.
In the years following that Bible study, we were frequent guests at the Webb home. Some of my fondest memories are the date night stops we made to their home off LaVista Road. As college students in love, we found it increasingly difficult to maintain a righteous relationship. That’s a polite way of saying I found it hard to keep my hands off the woman of my hopes and dreams. So quite often, following a Friday or Saturday night date, we would stopover and visit the Webbs until it was time for me to take Tootie home. Their gracious patience allowed us to be in a “safe” space. Those were special times as we had some wonderful, endearing, if not life-changing conversations with this couple who had become near and dear to us. Yet, I always knew it was time to leave when Jim fell asleep in his recliner.
Now, some five decades later, I can remember with a grateful heart many such stories, each with a lesson learned and a legacy passed down. What did it mean to be a man of integrity, a faithful husband, and a loving father? Jim’s life witness provided the answer. His faith in Christ had transformed him such that the fruits of the Holy Spirit were consistently evident in his life. Spending time with Jim was an education more valuable than gold or a degree from Harvard. Whenever you were in his presence, he always made you feel welcomed, respected and loved. Only later did you realize that you had drunk from a deep well of wisdom. You could not spend much time with Jim before you learned that serving is better than being served, and the joy of giving is greater than anything gained.
Now, looking back over the past 50 years, I shudder to think what my life, and that of my family, would have been like without the Godly influence of this man. The good news is that the fruit of Jim’s life did not die with him, but remains in the hearts and lives of countless others. His legacy of faith lived, of wisdom shared, and of generosity demonstrated will echo for generations to come.
To paraphrase the lyrics of Steve Green’s song “Find Us Faithful,” Jim Webb’s life left a heritage of faithfulness and was a stirring testament to God’s sustaining grace. The fire of his devotion and the footprints he left provided a path to the narrow road that each of us must find.
When I shared the news with my family of Jim’s passing, one of my daughters, one who, by the way, had also been mentored by Jim, commented that “at least mom (Tootie) would be first in line to welcome him home.” No doubt, Tootie is already giving him a tour of the heavenly realm. But I don’t believe she would be the first to greet him. The first sight would have been the Lord, welcoming Jim home with the words we all long to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Well done indeed.