EUGENE HENRY WEBB: The First 100+2
From the red clay of Red Level, Alabama with a population of less than 500 and one traffic light, came Eugene Henry Webb, the second of three sons and we know what middle children are like!
Life’s journey took him 169 miles north to the steel city with the statute of Vulcan… Birmingham, here, he finished high school and started college and a family including two daughters. First came Barbara, who Brenda later joined. Then it was on to California where he rode the rails as a dining car waiter until answering the call ”Uncle Sam Needs You!” As a Navy man, he underwent training in the Great Lakes, IL and in Norfolk, VA until qualifying as a coxswain and being shipped off to the Pacific.
After mustering out, and landing in New York, his professional life began in earnest. After observing Harlem’s night life and who called the shots, he accepted the advice (can you believe he took advice?) of a fellow Alabamian and thus embarked on a 50+ year career in real estate.
Webb worked as a real estate agent in the early years and chaffed at being the lowest person on the real estate totem pole. He was a fast learner and soon opened offices in the Bronx and Harlem. Gene Webb reached out to church groups, people in the neighborhood, lodges and civic organizations. He worked with those who had money and no place to put it and encouraged high flying hustlers to take care of their families by investing in property. This community leader helped church groups find ways to purchase churches that were being abandoned during the white flight from Harlem. Seeking to expand into management, he decided to establish his own company and Webb, Brooks and Brooker was formed. Brooks tenure was short-lived but Brooker, who was initially on a one year loan from another company, remained with the company from its founding until his death. His son, Jeffrey, took his father’s place and he too remained with the company until his death. George Brooker and Eugene Webb made quite a team. Webb, bombastic and volatile was always ready to brawl while George Brooker was quietly listening to classical music and singing in the St. John the Divine Choir. Each partner respected the other and together were a formidable team.
Their offices initially were located on 125th St. in a building shared with young lawyers who became major players on the local and national levels. They included the “Gang of Four” late Mayor David N. Dinkins, late Secretary of New York State Basil A. Patterson, late ”Chairman of the Board: Percy Sutton” and Congressman Charles Rangel and in addition, real estate rival the late Lloyd Dickens. What a crew and what a time! If those walls could talk.
Although Webb fervently denied being a politician, it depends on how one defines the word “politician”. How is it that late Mayor Ed Koch became a regular for breakfast at Sylvia’s with Koch eating bagels and lox while Webb ate his familiar biscuits and grits?
Webb knew what was going on in Harlem and local politicians uptown and downtown and in the Mayor’s office knew Webb and Brooker. Webb and Brooker refused offers to relocate downtown or to become branches of at least two large real estate firms. Rather, they adopted Booker T. Washington’s advice to “cast down your buckets where you are” and remained in Harlem. Their decision and commitment to invest in and to remain in Harlem was not without its pitfalls. The Dunbar apartments almost caused the company to go under and the partners were threatened with jail. Undeterred and wiser, they were successful in their efforts with the first large coop in Harlem…345 W. 145th Street which became a jewel in their crown. Acting on their commitment to be a good community citizen, they took on other activities. Webb, a fervent and avid promoter of education, wrangled invitations from the Secretary of State and underwrote visits to the State Department for students at the junior high school across from his offices at 148th Street. As one of the founding members of Friends of Harlem Hospital, Webb worked with the late Dr. Muriel Petioni to raise funds for the Harlem’s children. From its founding to its closing, Webb served as a member of Freedom National Bank board, as Chair of the United Mutual Life Insurance Co., as a Board member of the New York Uptown Chamber of Commerce, and as one of the founders of the Apollo Theater Foundation. He also held memberships with the New York City Partnership, was Governor Emeritus of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), and with the Associated Builders and Owners of Greater New York(ABO). He served as Treasurer at the New York College of Podiatric Medicine.
Although he was a New York resident for more than 75 years, Webb always loved Alabama. Anyone from Alabama was automatically granted immediate special status and his long Southern accent remained intact. For years, Webb served on the board of two HBCUs, Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, AL where he was named Trustee Emeritus and Miles College in his hometown of Birmingham, AL which awarded him his first honorary degree. He received a second honorary degree from New York Podiatric College located in his beloved Harlem and he served as a trustee at Cambridge College, in Cambridge, Mass.
Those who knew Webb also know of his love of family or “blood lines”. He cajoled, berated, bullied, encouraged and supported his grandchildren in their educational efforts. As with many, he used what he identified as “juice” to aid them in their professional achievements. He mentored many young people; he insisted that his employees learn more than just how to work at Webb and Brooker and the word was out that if you went to work at Webb and Brooker, you better be ready to go to school to learn something or your days at the firm would be limited. Not only did he mentor employees, he was available to other young people just starting out in their professional careers as lawyers, as architects and as budding politicians. He lent his ear, he gave advice, he gave money, he made contacts, he loaned the use of his offices. But he did not have time for foolishness and would not mince words when he thought the young person was moving in the wrong direction. He did not suffer fools gladly and no one ever had to guess where they stood with Webb. His words could be shockingly harsh but he could also apologize for going completely overboard. And, he had the ability to laugh at himself and to say “I’m sorry.” When he decided to, he could turn on the charm.
Nearing retirement, Webb made a decision to offer the company for sale to employees. When the company was sold, Webb moved completely out of any operation with the firm and “settled” reluctantly into retirement….a retirement he had not anticipated would be as long as it was. A sudden medical crisis made reaching his 100th birthday questionable, but in true Webb fashion, he made 100 plus 2. When asked the secret to his longevity, he responded “By the Grace.” Accustomed to being in charge Gene loved giving orders and as a result, retirement was not easy for him.
There were fewer people to give orders to and they were not always as compliant as he would have preferred. Webb’s world became smaller as his counterparts and long-time acquaintances and friends made their transitions. He was an active and vocal participant whenever the occasion called for it and sometimes he created the circumstance. Gene enjoyed traveling and continued his ventures until COVID19 shut down everyone’s world. Although he did not look kindly on social clubs as he thought there were better ways to spend one’s time and resources, he greatly enjoyed his special celebratory 100th birthday party sponsored by The Reveille Club at one of his favorite Harlem restaurants. He also kept his membership active as a 33rd degree Mason.
Webb leaves to celebrate his life his family….daughter, Brenda Wilkins of Maryland, five grandchildren…April Cade of Indiana, Trent Lyght of Georgia, Cheryl Lyght LaMonica of Massachusetts, Amanda Jackson of Maryland and Todd Lyght of California; seven great-grandchildren, one great-grandchild; nieces Stacey Simon and Carol Moore of New York; nephew Bill Wood of Ohio; and his wife, Danna. He also leaves fond memories and classic stories with his Reveille club members and his Masonic brothers. His former employees who knew him as “Chief” and those who benefitted from his counsel will cherish special times spent with him.
Webb’s strong determination allowed him to maintain his independence until the last few weeks of his life. Even then, he decided which rehabilitation activities he would participate in and selected which assistive devices he would use. Eugene Henry Webb said “bye, bye” to this world on Resurrection Sunday evening.