When Josephine Webb was on North Idaho College’s board of trustees in the early 1970s, a developer presented a proposal to build condominiums on the property at the head of the Spokane River.
Webb led a community battle against the proposal, and the developer eventually backed out. NIC bought the lakeshore from Pack River Lumber Co. in 1977, preserving the beachfront for public use.
“That beach is now secure for generations and generations,” college President Priscilla Bell told Webb during a Friday reception honoring her contributions. “Everybody in this region thanks you.”
On Friday, the community college bid goodbye to one of its longest-lasting and most accomplished supporters, a woman who served on the college’s board for years, who launched the fundraising foundation that brought in millions for student scholarships and building projects, and who secured millions for the college as a grant writer and assistant to the president.
After 60 years in Coeur d’Alene, the dynamic 90-year-old is leaving the area to live closer to family in Seattle. Webb leaves behind a community where she pioneered a path as one of the region’s first female engineers; where she and her husband, Herb, raised two daughters; and where she committed much of her life to the community college she loved.
“My heart is at NIC,” Webb said. “The community college concept allows students of all means to earn an education, and I will always be an advocate for that.”
Webb left NIC’s board in 1976 but went to work for the college two years later as a grant writer and assistant to the president, a position she held until retiring in 1990. She was also regularly lauded as the college’s oldest student, as she took Music 103 – the concert choir – every year and was known for her singing and piano-playing ability.
She was a role model for the next generation of female leaders, women who have served on the boards of civic organizations and public entities throughout the region. They include Judy Meyer, a current member of NIC’s board; Sue Thilo, who serves on the NIC Foundation board; and Rayelle Anderson, who leads NIC’s foundation.
“When I think of Jo Webb … it is that she was a trailblazer,” Thilo said.
It appears Webb has always been that way. A newspaper story from when she was 13 shows that Webb, then Josephine Rohas, was the country’s youngest female ham radio operator. She was the first woman to graduate from Purdue University with a degree in electrical engineering in 1940 and was the first registered female professional engineer in Idaho in 1964.
Webb and her brother were raised in Buffalo, N.Y., by a single mother. She met the man she would marry, Herbert Webb, while working in a wholesale radio store after graduating from high school, according to a 1943 profile in the New York World Telegram. The pair decided to study electrical engineering together at Purdue.
The Webbs worked for Westinghouse laboratories in Pittsburgh during World War II and moved to Coeur d’Alene in 1949, following friends who’d moved there the year before. They arrived with their 9-month-old daughter Stephanie. Their daughter Janis was born in 1954.
The couple bought 160 acres on the east side of Lake Coeur d’Alene, along with a smaller property on Rockford Bay. They established a home and shared an office as consulting engineers and partners, while ferrying back and forth across the lake to enjoy their expansive wooded property.
“She’s been a role model for me as an active participant in every sense of the word,” said Meyer, a partner with her husband, Steve, in Parkwood Business Properties, a commercial development firm, since 1975.
Years later, the Webbs platted 20 lots on their lakefront property, selling them to pay for their daughters’ college educations, Josephine Webb said. The majority of the land, however, is held by a family trust and remains forested.
In the late 1950s, Webb was the first woman admitted to the Washington Society of Professional Engineers. In June 1964, she attended the first International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists in New York City and, in 1967, she delivered the keynote address to that group at a conference in Cambridge, England.
Webb has experienced her share of tragedy, losing both her husband and her youngest daughter, Janis, to cancer. Janis and her husband owned the former downtown Coeur d’Alene bookstore, The Bookseller, and helped start Coeurimba, a popular marimba band.
In Seattle, Webb will live closer to her daughter Stephanie, her son-in-law, and other family members.
Anderson told Webb at the Friday reception that when she returns to Coeur d’Alene to visit, she will be welcomed at NIC with open arms.
“This is your home,” Anderson said. “We will keep the light on always.”