Betty Webb was on vacation in Sri Lanka a year ago when a tsunami rose in the Indian Ocean and washed away large pieces of the island nation and tens of thousands of its people.
Webb, the director of Meredith College's study abroad program, was at a hotel in Colombo when the wall of water crashed into seaside villages and tourist beaches. With her husband, John Rose, at her side, she watched in horror from a finger of high land in the capital city as the sea filled with furniture and other detritus swept to the southwest side of the island. But it was too soon to fathom the magnitude of the destruction.
"I remember seeing a teddy bear floating by," Webb says a year later. "I was so na•ve at the time about what had happened that I remember thinking: 'Wouldn't it be neat to rescue a teddy bear for a child?' "
Soon, details of the devastation settled in: 35,000 Sri Lankan lives lost, thousands of children left homeless, livelihoods sucked out to sea.
Webb is an empathetic woman with a tender heart and a steely spine. She immediately began planning to help. She left Sri Lanka determined to drum up support for a people that had charmed and welcomed her even in the dark hours after the waves hit.
This past week, Webb was in Sri Lanka again, her third visit since the tsunami. With Meredith College students along for the eye-opening experience, she talked with Sri Lankans about the best ways for North Carolinians to help.
"Dr. Webb says we can have an idea about what people need," says Rebekah Meek, a 2005 graduate who went on an earlier relief trip. "But we really couldn't know unless we go out on the ground and find out what really is needed. That helped us establish our relief projects."
Rallying, reaching out
Those who know Webb say she is very difficult to say "no" to.
The 60-year-old English professor can be a pixie around children. She sparkles with humor. But when the situation calls for stern and solemn words, she issues them with no apologies.
With that kind of resolute nudging, Webb is encouraging Meredith to raise $55,000 for tsunami victims. She knows how to rally students to her cause and reach out to community organizations in Raleigh. She chronicles her journeys in blogs and newspapers. Through her writing, she hopes to arouse support long after the immediacy of the devastation wears off.
"Meredith is such a generous institution," Webb says.
The college is sponsoring 16 boys in an orphanage and paying for English lessons and Internet access.
The fund raising is helping rebuild a school that was destroyed. The money buys sewing machines for women in several villages, contributes to a fishing village project, and buys boats, three-wheel all-terrain vehicles and other equipment to revive an industry.
"When people say you're so wonderful to do this, I always say, 'Well you would do it, too, if you had been there and seen what we did,' " Webb says. "My husband and I, we are sort of at an age when we don't expect something new to happen in our lives. But we feel oddly sort of fortunate that we were there when this happened. This is a major natural disaster of our lifetime, and we have to help."
Webb is an inspiration to many Meredith students, her charges and colleagues say.
"Betty is such a wonderful combination of being a very articulate, charming and elegant person," says fellow English professor Eloise Grathwohl. "The thing Betty does so well is to take these young women -- many of them shy and not sure what they want to do with their lives -- and she takes them out into the world and they come back changed, knowing what they want to do. It's wonderful to see."
Laura Williams, a 2004 Meredith graduate, went on her first study trip abroad with Webb three years ago.
"I just fell in love with her, she's just an amazing woman," Williams says. "She gets excited seeing people who have never been out of the country get excited about being out of the country. There's a whole other world out there, and I don't think I would have done as much if she had not shown me that."
Dream of global travel
Webb grew up in Statesville after spending her first four years in Charlotte. It was probably in the foothills of the North Carolina mountains, she says, where her interest in global travel was sparked.
"We were a family that always took National Geographic," she says. "My father was one of those businessmen who was always talking about the trips he would take when he retired, but he never got to."
Webb enrolled at Meredith in 1963. She studied English and history and never dreamed that she would spend most of the next 42 years on the campus.
She dabbled in newspapers but opted to pursue a different career after an editor told her during an internship that her need to fix things made her more suitable for social work.
Webb taught high school English and continued her own studies.
After getting a master's degree from N.C. State University and a doctorate from UNC-Chapel Hill, she landed back in Raleigh in the Meredith English department.
Webb's first trip abroad was nearly 30 years ago when she went with a Meredith College program to Great Britain. That was when she met Rose, her husband. But they were both married to other people at the time.
Their lives took twists and turns, and they got married 15 years ago. With a flat in Rose's native England, a home in Raleigh and a cabin in the mountains, they divide their time between two continents.
In Bath, England, where the couple spend most of their winter breaks, Webb enjoys catching up with her four step-grandchildren. In Raleigh, she teaches Irish literature and courses on educational methods. As the study-abroad director, she travels most summers.
She likes to take students off the beaten tourist paths, a convention she picked up from her husband.
"What I most want them to understand is what's distinct in and about a culture," Webb says. "My husband always says his preferred museum is the museum of life. He will tolerate a museum of art, but he really wants to be out with the people."
Out among the people of Sri Lanka, Webb and Rose befriended residents who tugged at their hearts. Webb still speaks of a boy in Galle who invited them to a two-room house filled with 30 people for sweet, milky tea and warm conversation in broken English.
She speaks of fishermen and relief workers. She vividly recalls the faces of children who she hopes have long lives ahead of them. She encourages people to help the hurricane victims in the United States and the Pakistanis whose lives were disrupted by earthquakes this fall.
But she is dedicated to the Sri Lankans.
"We cannot lose this whole generation of Southeast Asians," Webb says. "We have to demonstrate in tangible ways that we are committed to them."
Staff writer Anne Blythe can be reached at 932-8741 or firstname.lastname@example.org.