The first time Tommy Webb tasted a banana, he tried to eat the peel, too. It was the worst food he’d ever tasted, but an undernourished Amerasian street kid from South Korea doesn’t willingly give up food.
He didn’t speak English, and his new adoptive father didn’t speak Korean, so they had a tug of war over the peel in his mouth until his dad handed him another banana so he’d let go.
Today, Tom Webb is a retired judge living in Topeka and his life experiences are the basis for the motivational talk, “You Can Make a Difference.” Students at Great Bend Middle School and Great Bend High School heard his story Thursday morning.
“Who I am today is because of the choices that I have made,” Webb said. “But if it had not been for those who reached out with compassion, I would not be alive today.”
Webb was born in Korea in 1952, or at least that’s what the doctor who looked at his teeth estimated when he was taken in by the Holt Orphanage in 1958. The son of a prostitute and one of the American servicemen in Korea in the 1950s, he was used to eating garbage from trash bins and sleeping in the same bins when the weather turned cold.
One of his best childhood memories is of the kindhearted, white-haired lady he encountered after being picked up by a policeman. She gave him a piece of candy and hugged him. He had not bathed in weeks, but she didn’t seem to notice how dirty he was or how bad he smelled.
“I believe part of the person I am today is because of an act of kindness that was shown to that 6-year-old boy,” Webb said.
From there he went to the orphanage founded in 1956 by Harry and Bertha Holt. Their compassion also had an impact on his life.
Certainly, the Oklahoma couple who adopted him, Roy and Ruth Webb, were influences. The family moved to Junction City in 1961 and Ruth Webb became a teacher at the poorest school in town, by her own choosing. She called it a privilege to teach underprivileged children.
When her son Tom visited her classroom, he saw a shelf at the back of the room filled with cereal boxes.
“I have some students who come to class in the same clothes they slept in the night before,” his mother said. Seeing the need, at the start of the school year she asked her students to name their favorite cereals.
“Every child had a box of cereal with their name on it,” Webb said. His mother used her own money to do that. “My mother didn’t have a problem with students being tardy to school,” he noted. Her students arrived early and sometimes brought their little brothers and sisters as well.
One Saturday Webb reluctantly joined his mother as she drove to the poorest part of town to visit a man who hadn’t come to parent-teacher conferences.
“That day made an impact on my life,” Webb said. “Every person that she came in contact with, she treated that person with respect and value.”
Likewise, he told students, “Have a positive impact on the lives that you touch.”
That message resonated with teachers such as GBMS Technology Coach Darcy Leech. She said students could benefit from his story of overcoming obstacles and have empathy for others.
Success in life
Webb went on to enjoy success in life, from playing on two state championship football teams in high school to playing football in the U.S. Marine Corps. Married with two children, he earned a bachelor’s degree and a Master of Science in family therapy. A former magistrate judge in Haskell County, he is past president of the National Judges Association and has served on the Kansas Children Justice Act Task Force and other state organizations.
Webb spoke to Great Bend teachers at the start of the school year. That program was so well received that he was asked to give a shorter version to students this week, said Khris Thexton, interim superintendent of USD 428.
The students were as engaged Thursday as the teachers were last August, Thexton said. He noted that classes dismissed early Thursday and there are no classes Friday due to parent-teacher conferences, so a morning program could have been something to "get through."
“The kids were getting ready for a three-day weekend,” Thexton said, but Webb held their attention. “He does a good job.”
Webb tells his audiences, “You will never know the impact that you have on the lives around you when you choose to reach out with compassion and caring and truly make a difference.”