NASA administrator and Oxford native James Webb honored with highway historical marker

April 7, 2019

A North Carolina highway historical marker was unveiled on Saturday honoring James E. Webb, who led NASA during the space-race of the 1960s. The marker in front of C. G. Credle Elementary School, on College Street in Oxford, is around the corner from Webb’s modest two-story boyhood home on Broad Street. Webb graduated from Oxford High School in 1923 and went on to earn a degree in education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He worked as a legal clerk in small Oxford law firm before joining the Marine Corps where he learned to fly, reaching the rank of second lieutenant. He went on to work for North Carolina congressman Edward Pou of Johnston County in 1932 while earning his law degree from George Washington University. Webb moved to New York in 1936, where he worked for Sperry Gyroscope Company, becoming vice-president. The company produced complex scientific equipment during the build-up of World War II. By 1943, he returned to active duty, commanding the First Marine Air Warning Group at Cherry Point, NC developing night uses for radar. He returned to Washington, where he worked in top positions in the U.S. Treasury, Bureau of the Budget, and Department of State. He also served as Deputy Governor of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Webb’s skills as an administrator, his military and government finance experience and his experience leading complex scientific projects led then Vice President Johnson to offer him the position of NASA’s head. Though initially reluctant, thinking an engineer or scientist would be a better choice, Webb went on to guide the agency through its largest build up ever, during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. He retired in late 1968, but not before criticizing congressional budget cuts which he said put the United States in danger of being surpassed by the Soviets. Webb died at age 85 at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. During his life, he received 32 honorary degrees from colleges and universities including Duke and Wake Forest. He is remembered not only as the hard-charging architect of NASA as we know it, but a master of public administration.

Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.