John Webb

1926 - 2019

John Webb

John Webb was born on 29 July 1926 in Staines, England, growing up west of London when World War II broke out. He joined the Royal Air Force during the war, but poor eyesight kept him from flying. Instead, he worked with RAF Intelligence drawing maps of Europe to be used for Allied bombing missions. After the war, he attended the University of St. Andrews, where he earned three master’s degrees in four years and met his first wife, Anne (Nancy) Smillie, an American.

Webb moved to the U.S. with Nancy in 1952, continuing his studies as a doctoral student in the Department of Geography at the University of Minnesota. He taught one year at the University of Maryland (1954-55) and returned to Minnesota an instructor (1955-58) while completing his doctorate with Jan Broek. After receiving his Ph.D. (1958) he taught in the Minnesota department, later serving administrative roles including associate dean for Social Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts (1969-73).

In 1979 Webb married Judith Holtan. They moved to Albany, New York, as he took the position of professor of geography and dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the State University of New York (SUNY). He served in those positions until his retirement (1997).

His most notable publication (with Jan Broek) was A Geography of Mankind (1968), a pioneering college text organized by themes such as language, government, religion and economy as they appeared across the world. The structure of the text was a departure from the prevailing approach, which examined the map of the human world as a mosaic of regions and culture realms.

The year before Webb died, while he and his daughter Jennifer traveled to England, she learned that when he left RAF service he had absconded with some maps as keepsakes, including one, written in German and dated November 1940, which had been recovered by the Allies. It was a Nazi aerial map of Weybridge, Webb’s hometown and home to an important airfield and factory. The Germans had dropped some 500 bombs on the city over the course of the war. Although the Brits disguised and camouflaged the factory when war broke out, it could be seen clearly on the Nazi map.

The site of the former Weybridge airfield now has a museum where John and Jennifer donated the map some 78 years after it was created. It remains on display there. She recalled: “It was really neat because all the volunteers at the museum came and crowded around him and wanted to talk about it. …  It gave him some closure,” she said.

Following retirement from SUNY Albany, John and Judith eventually settled in St. Cloud, MN, where he died on 18 August 2019 at the age of 93. He was survived by his wife Judith, his daughter, Jennifer Fusaro and son John Webb.