Living to protect, serve

In a town that had its spirit shaped by big events, it was only natural that San Francisco would be a draw for characters larger than life.

Now, through the passing of one such life, we can recognize a great character, the kind of person upon whom The City was built. That would be one John Webb, Jack to his friends, who led a life so varied and active that it almost reads as fiction: native son, Navy Seabee, career police officer, fabled private eye and longtime freedom fighter.

Somewhere in there he managed to marry his teenage sweetheart, Beverly, raise five children and help expand swaths of San Francisco’s Sunset district — but that was just in his downtime.

If this Jack Webb — who was remembered by his many friends and family at St. Gabriel’s Church last week — all sounds a bit much, there are pictures to back it up. There’s Jack with Adlai Stevenson. Another with Cesar Chavez. Almost forgot about the time he guarded Vice President Hubert Humphrey. There’s his good pal Gerry Adams, the former Sinn Fein leader who spent years trying to broker peace in Northern Ireland.

Sounds like San Francisco’s own Walter Mitty. Not bad for the son of a local prize fighter who grew up in the Mission district.

Jack was only 15 when he went off to join the Merchant Marines during the Korean War and ended up heeding a call for Navy recruits, becoming a “fighting Seabee.” When he returned home, he decided to become a police officer, a notion his son John attributed to Jack’s unstated desire “to end crime in San Francisco.”

Only later did it seem like such a perfect fit, Jack Webb becoming a real police officer, unlike his television namesake. And as he rose through the ranks, headlines followed — not surprising for someone who was once partnered with an officer named Dick Tracy.

The burly Webb seemed to have an affinity for protection, which is how, in the ’60s, he ended up on the security detail for the likes of former presidential candidate Stevenson, often here after being named U.N. ambassador, and for Chavez, who led a series of marches and boycotts as head of the United Farm Workers. He did the same for Humphrey, though he didn’t quite have the same panache, failing to make the gallery wall in Webb’s study. Nikita Kruschev did, however, since the Russian leader and Jack both shared an affinity for vodka.

Jack was part of the great Irish migration from the Mission to the Sunset, and he became deeply involved in the expansion efforts of St. Gabriel’s parish, which, during the boom years, fast became the largest Catholic grammar school west of the Mississippi and which was surrounded by blocks of young families buying new homes in the newest part of San Francisco.

After 20 years in the SFPD, Webb retired to become a private investigator, naturally gravitating toward big cases, or the headline-grabbers toward him. After the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, it demanded free-food giveaways in the Bay Area, with the caveat that no police get involved.

It was a frenzied, turbulent mess, but somehow Randolph Hearst, then the scion of the media giant, found his way to Jack, who supervised the food free-for-alls in Oakland and San Francisco.

But it was his love of Ireland that brought him the greatest comfort, and for that he reserved his most steely resolve. Jack became a loyalist in the fight to bring peace to Northern Ireland, and soon the bar he bought on Geary Street, Ireland’s 32, became a necessary stop in The City for the likes of Adams and his colleagues in Sinn Fein.

“He just loved to take up causes, and they changed dramatically over the years,” said his son Kevin, a prominent city contractor.

He knew life could be good, if you decide to fully live it.


Governor pulls no punches with pay rate

Lame-duck status may not be the favored situation for most politicians, but it does seem to offer them the chance to take on unpopular fights, such as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ongoing court battle to pay state workers minimum wage. You think he would have done that if he were seeking re-election?

The governor filed a lawsuit against state Controller John Chiang to force him to pay state employees $7.25 an hour rather than their full wages as part of the annual budget dance in Sacramento. Last week, a state appeals court ruled that Schwarzenegger has the authority to order the wage cut because the state hasn’t passed a fiscal year budget for about the 20th year in a row.

Chiang is resisting, saying that the state’s computer payroll can’t handle the change. And to that, we say it’s time to break out the calculators.

The governor’s order has some might behind it because it would cover nearly 200,000 of the state’s 237,000 workers. And maybe that should get some people thinking that possibly the state has far too many workers.

But we have a governor’s race for that — or at least a full season of campaign promises.


Putting Bay to Breakers on wagon good for race

Bully for organizers of The City’s famed Bay to Breakers race for announcing plans to ban alcohol from the wacky annual gathering. The booze brigade has definitely marred the event in recent years, and it’s no wonder sponsor ING pulled out after so much negative press surrounding the buildup of the race.

That said, let’s wish the organizers good luck in making the prohibition campaign happen. Trying to stop drinkers from taking to the streets of San Francisco is like trying to block summer fog.

The race backers may not like it, but there are some things that you just can’t know about San Francisco unless you’re here — like how crazy it really is.

AEG, organizer of Bay to Breakers, shares the same owners as Clarity Media, which oversees The Examiner.

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