Tamsen Webb, director of Duke's Elementary Teacher Preparation Program and praised as a tireless advocate for children and the teaching profession, died from colon cancer last Thursday in her Chapel Hill home. She was 52.
Often called a "hell on wheels," a "fireball," a "book fairy," a "wonderful storyteller" and "our Duke mom" by friends and former students, Webb came to Duke three years ago to train elementary-level teachersï¿½ï¿½a mission that captivated every aspect of Webb's life, said David Malone, director of the Program in Education.
"She was a gifted teacher herself, and she was an especially gifted teacher of young adults who were preparing to become teachers themselves," Malone said. "She was a caring and inspirational professional who always took the interests of her students into mind."
Webb spent much of her career as a teacher in the Durham and Orange County school systems, and as a faculty member at the education school of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, from which she received her doctorate. She served as the principal of Durham's Oak Grove Elementary School from 1996 to 1998 and then became one of only four full-time professors in Duke's education program.
Upon arriving at Duke, her energy and experience as a teacher became evident immediately, said Jessica Vick, Trinity '00, a program coordinator in the Program in Education. Vick, a student in Webb's first class at Duke, went on to work with her after graduation and said that Webb's goal was always to make both teaching and the classroom fun. She said Webb started their first class by telling the story of her own first day teaching, when a student lost his eyeball.
"She turned to us and said, 'Beat that! I bet none of you will have a worse day,'" Vick said.
More than other professors, Webb opened up herself and her family to her students, Vick said. Webb invited all of her students to her home at the end of each semester and gave everyone a book, signed on the inside cover with a message about what their relationship had meant. The practice earned Webb the "book fairy" nickname.
In 2001, Webb started Project Child, which seeks to involve Duke freshmen with local elementary schools. Modeled after other freshmen programs such as Project BUILD and Project WILD, Project Child now has about 75 participants volunteering year-round in four local schools and three community centers, Vick said.
"She really wanted students when they came here to get involved in the community beyond the walls of East Campus," Vick said.
Even the late stages of cancer did not dampen Webb's energy as she continued teaching throughout this past summer. And at the UNC medical center where doctors were treating her cancer, Webb established a children's library at the pediatric hematology-oncology division.
"She took her work very seriously, but she never took herself very seriously," said Rosemary Thorne, director of the Master of Arts in Teaching Program. "People talk about a battle with cancer. Tammy didn't talk about battling with cancer--she talked about living with it. It didn't control her life. It wasn't the only thing left about her."
Friends and family held a memorial service for Webb Tuesday. She is survived by her husband Leland, their daughter Bethany and their son Peter.
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