The Webb House at 18: A teen hangout grows up, but doesn’t grow old
Officially, I was supposed to be on hand as a chaperone.
A few weeks ago, I commented in my column that I had no idea what kids these days do for fun.
A couple of days later, our phone rang. My wife took a message.
“Jim North wants to invite you to be a chaperone at a Webb House Valentine’s dance,” I was informed.
I had Mr. North in middle school English back in the day. In fact, he taught in the same room for 38 years until his retirement three years ago.
When I try to think back to how and when I developed a love of creative writing — or just creative thinking in general — all memories seem to point to Mr. North’s room.
For one class project, some friends and I made a short movie starring my family’s now-late wiener dog, Spud. We called it “The Killer Dachshund From Mars.”
If anybody is still waiting for a Blu-ray “Special Edition” of “The Killer Dachshund From Mars,” I say to them — one day, my friends, one day. I’m still thinking of what to say in my director’s commentary.
But at one point in the movie, one of my friends went off-script — OK, so there really wasn’t a script to begin with — during his big death scene in the snow.
With Spud wriggling around on top of him — the poor dog probably just wanted to go back inside — he blurted out a swear word as he was being “mauled.”
It was plain as day.
“Cut!” I yelled. “That was awesome!”
When we later showed the movie in class, I felt a tinge of unease as the scene in question crept near.
And then, plain as day, the word filled the room.
To my surprise, Mr. North didn’t shut it down and kick us out of class. Instead, he actually chuckled.
Basically, that smirk of approval provided the basis for my entire professional career as a columnist.
So his idea to have me come help chaperone a middle-school Valentine’s dance last Friday night at the Webb House served us mutually.
For him, it was to generate a little more publicity for a teen hangout that exists solely on donations.
A series of unexpected expenses in the past year have made the challenge of running the Webb House all the more challenging.
It costs $400 a month to keep the house open, which doesn’t sound like much until you realize that the only source of income is soda and snack sales.
“That’s 400 cans of pop,” North said.
For me, heading into my 16th year of writing a column, I’d already been on a Bigfoot hunting expedition and gone on a couple of paranormal investigations.
A middle school dance would seem to be the next logical assignment.
“No matter what I say,” North remarked beforehand, “I’m not going to hear the Beach Boys tonight.”
And, yet, he’s never missed a dance in the 18 years since the Webb House opened.
I wasn’t supposed to make the story about Mr. North, but it’s awfully hard to separate the Webb House from the man who keeps it going.
“Last Friday night, a cop walked in,” North said. “That’s the last thing you want to see on a Friday night.
“He stopped by just to take a tour.”
Organized hangouts for local kids have come and gone.
They’ve gone by various names, like the Digital Domain and the Solid Rock Cafe.
The Webb House, located across the street from the First United Methodist Church, has had an unprecedented lifespan.
“If you say Webb House, most people have heard of it,” North said, “and they have a favorable impression.”
Through the years, the house has donated $27,000 back to the community through its teen dances.
“I think, ‘Boy, if we’d just kept all that ...” North said.
North is quick to note that the Webb House isn’t tied directly to any one church in town.
“We happen to be on Methodist property,” he said, “but it’s independent.”
Friday nights are reserved for middle schoolers. Saturday nights are for the high school set.
“The skating rink is boring after a while,” said DJ Bumgardner, an eighth-grader from Grand Junction who’s a regular at the Webb House.
If Methodists believed in sainthood, Mr. North would seem to be the ideal candidate.
Here’s a man who spent 38 years of his life around middle schoolers. And, now, in retirement, he’s continuing to spend his free time around middle schoolers.
It’s like Mother Teresa’s lifelong vow to aid the world’s lepers.
You know I speak the truth — middle schoolers are a strange breed.
Kids leave fifth grade as Mogwais. Then, through one way or another — maybe someone fed them after midnight — they transform into Gremlins, complete with scaly skin, insatiable appetites and unstable, violent demeanors.
“I just want the kids to have a good time,” North said.
Naturally, some kids have tried to have more fun than others.
There was the one girl — from a well-known local family, North said — who once brought a bottle of Coke with rum inside it.
“The chaperone noticed there were a lot of people around her,” North recalled.
Outside soda is no longer allowed.
There were the high school kids four or five years ago who left a window open so they could break back in, stealing video games.
To this day, though, no high schooler has, at any time in modern American history, ever been involved in a successful heist.
“They started talking about it,” North said.
Last Friday night, the big-screen TV in one room at the Webb House was left under the watchful eye of Renee Carhill, North’s longtime co-coordinator.
She’d caught the kids trying to watch “R-rated” shows, she reported.
North seemed perplexed.
“All the bad channels are blocked out,” he said.
But, that’s the way the world’s gone in the 18 years since the Webb House opened — the adult world just keeps creeping into kids’ lives.
Pointing to a picture taken in the late ’90s of the original Webb House, North noted the trees, in particular, that once stood on the grounds.
“Ben Carman,” he observed. “The last time I saw him, he was cutting down those trees.”
Carman, a 2002 graduate of Jefferson-Scranton High School, was killed in the spring of 2004 in Ramadi, Iraq, while serving with the Marines.
North isn’t exactly sure how the Webb House has survived this long.
Financially speaking, there’s almost never been a lack of support.
The local sorority Beta Tau Delta is covering the house’s heating bills for January and February, North said.
Every so often, he said, he’ll be at Fareway and someone will slip him $100 for the Webb House.
“People really, really believe in a place like this,” North said.
The bottom line, though, is that the Webb House has remained in the good graces of kids themselves.
It’s somewhere they still want to go.
Carhill talks of kids who became couples at the Webb House, only to grow up and get married.
North thinks maybe it has to do with the fact that kids have a vested interest in it. They have a say in it.
They helped paint the inside of the new Webb House when it opened in January 2003. (The original Webb House was located in the basement of Catherine Webb’s former home. North only found out later there was a “makeout room.”)
“They painted each other,” North said, “but they painted every room.”
They DJ the dances.
“I tell the chaperones, our DJs are deaf,” North joked.
I guess I was supposed to be acting as a chaperone myself last Friday, but all I really wanted to do was play the pinball machines.
On a tour beforehand, I was amazed to see what essentially amounts to one of the last arcades in central Iowa.
The Webb House has managed to amass a number of cool old pinball machines and video games.
I personally wanted to get my hands on “Totem,” an American Indian-themed pinball machine with backglass art that resembles a peyote trip as interpreted by a 1970s Marvel Comics artist.
The game dates to 1979.
Right next to it is “Liberty Bell” from 1977.
“They’re not the latest ones,” North said, almost apologetically.
North warned beforehand that I’d leave the Webb House smelling like French fries, and it wasn’t long before he was frying some up in the kitchen that doubles as a concession stand.
“We’re not here to take money from kids,” North said, “but we need money.”
Someone only recently donated an exhaust fan to the house. It was still in the box.
I kept gravitating back to the room with the pinball machines.
I tried getting a cool photo of one particular kid — a seventh-grader — playing pinball.
After what seemed like 25 or 30 shots, I jokingly asked, “Am I bugging you?”
Without even looking up, he answered, matter-of-factly, “Yes.”
I chuckled — pretty much the same way Mr. North chuckled when I was that age.
Sixth-graders Cheyanne Ferguson (top) and Ariel Mills have fun on the dance floor last Friday night at the Webb House in Jefferson. As an organized hangout for kids, the Webb House has had an unprecedented lifespan. “It’s awesome here,” Ariel said. ANDREW McGINN | JEFFERSON HERALD
Seventh-grader Ryan Footlander (right) demonstrates the endearing personality traits of middle-schoolers Friday night at the Webb House. ANDREW McGINN | JEFFERSON HERALD