Wilbur ‘Webb’ Palmer
“I’m just a simple farmer”
October 14, 2016
by Laurie Jasper
Born Dec. 10, 1935, Wilbur “Webb” Palmer, a lifelong Derry resident, shared his heart and soul with Hudson. Sadly, the well-known educator died on Sept. 27, after a period of declining health. Yet, the imprint this self-proclaimed “simple farmer” left on Hudson schools will live on in the generations of students who walk through their halls.
For 38 years, Webb was a teacher, mentor and leader in the Hudson School District, until his retirement in 2001. Webb then was appointed an Alvirne trustee, a position he proudly held until his death. Webb taught science and math for three years before being hired to replace Alvirne’s agriculture teacher in 1966. The intent was to close the program, but Webb had other ideas, and the rest, as they say, is history. Not only did Webb continue the program, he expanded it to become a state vocational center and was instrumental in the planning and construction of the state-of-the-art vocational that which was aptly named the Wilbur Palmer Vocational-Technical Center at its dedication in 1993.
Calling hours were held on Oct. 3 at the Peabody Funeral Home in Londonderry, with a continuous flow of people in line to pay respects to their teacher, mentor, co-worker and friend. An overflow crowd of mourners, many waiting in line over 45 minutes, patiently stood and shared “Webb” stories with one another on a picture-postcard fall afternoon. A retired Alvirne principal stood in front of former students; a former vocational teacher traveled from Connecticut and stood near Alvirne trustees; members of Webb’s church, holding their four-month old daughter, stood among his former colleagues. As the line made its way into the funeral home and then around the room, mourners looked at photo collages of Webb’s life, filled with family and friends, each featuring Webb, with his warm smile and twinkling eyes.
Webb graduated from Pinkerton Academy in 1953 and earned his bachelor’s degree from University of New Hampshire, despite being told by his high school principal that he’d never make it through college. Webb delighted in sharing this account throughout his life. Following his college graduation, Webb was commissioned for active duty as a second Lieutenant in the Army. He served three years with the United States Marine Corp and 35 years with the U.S. Army Reserves, retiring with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Webb earned his master’s degree in agricultural education in 1969 from UNH.
Webb first began as a vocational agriculture teacher at Colebrook Academy in Colebrook, N.H., which is also where he met his wife, Marge, who taught English at the school. In 1963, Webb was hired to teach math and science at Hudson Junior High School (now Dr. H.O. Smith School), but due to space limitations, the junior high moved to Alvirne. In 1966, Webb was hired to replace Alvirne’s agriculture teacher with the understanding that the program was to be eliminated. Thanks to Webb Palmer’s vision and tenacity, not only is Alvirne High School’s Career and Technical Education Center the pride of Hudson, but plans are underway for renovation and expansion at the Wilbur H. Palmer Vocational Technical Center.
“Webb was an ideas man, he was always thinking ahead,” said Peter Dolloff, Hudson school superintendent from 1971-1997. Dolloff recalled that he and Webb became close when they were traveling to Concord to advocate for the proposed multi-million-dollar vocational center at Alvirne in the early 1990s. Webb wrote the grant and was the driving force behind the success of the project.
Former student Maria Jasper VanderWoude became an agriculture teacher at Alvirne in the late 1980s and is currently the New Hampshire FFA executive director. “When I was a student, Webb’s office was a small area next to the classroom, and the walls didn’t reach the ceiling. Between classes, the smell of cigarette smoke was strong as Webb sat at his desk smoking and drinking coffee. What a mess that office was! Papers piled everywhere,” recalled VanderWoude.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor than Webb. It’s amazing to me how he grew the Alvirne vocational program from one small ag building to the enormous CTE Center that it is today. He had a vision, and he had the ambition to see it to fruition. While Webb was planning the Center, we ag teachers used to joke that it would be built in the shape of a huge ‘W’ and it would be called ‘Webby World.’ That joke gave rise to the notion that it should be named after him, and so the warrant article was written and the town approved it unanimously,” shared VanderWoude. “The last line of the FFA motto is, ‘Living to serve,’ and Webb Palmer was an exemplary illustration of that.
“His life was spent in service to others- his family, his church, education, agriculture, FFA, Alvirne. He was humble, and failed to recognize the impact he had on others. Every time I saw him, he talked about how great his former students, ‘his kids,’ as he called us, were and how fortunate he was to have had such a wonderful life and career. I think he had that backward … we were the lucky ones to have had him as a teacher.”
Trish Ballantyne (Patty Hall) was a member of Alvirne’s Class of 1979 and one of “Webb’s kids.” “As a teacher, Webb had the ability to help us believe in ourselves,” she said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but realize now that he was empowering us and then held us to it. Webb also respected the fact that we were individuals and he took the time to get to know us so he could best guide and challenge us. This investment he made in us is just one of the reasons his students worked so hard to make Mr. Palmer proud.”
Throughout the years, Webb did just that … he gave “his kids” the ability to believe in themselves. When Webb became Alvirne’s agriculture teacher, he began expanding the programs offered, and dug the farm out of $10,000 debt by contacting the county forester and deciding the 100 acres of pines across the street could use a selective cutting. When Webb was asked to teach a general science class to some of the more disruptive students, he knew after one or two classes it just would not work. Using his vision, he wrote a grant for environmental science to expand further and offer forestry. Webb knew instinctively that some students needed to learn by doing, and the vocational programs gave practical experience with animals and equipment.
Donald Shepard was a member of the Hudson School Board in the 1970s and is currently an Alvirne trustee. “Webb was a great guy. He always had a congenial state of mind. He always did a beautiful job. I remember he laid out the fields when football was new; he made sure things were done correctly. I remember when the vote came to name the new vocational center after Webb and it was unanimous,” said Shepard.
For Alvirne Trustee Ruth Parker, her earliest memories of the Palmer family date back to the 1940s. “I was just a kid growing up on a small dairy farm in Hudson, and we as a family participated in a fresh air program. We hosted a young girl from New York City for a week on a New Hampshire farm. As it turned out, Webb’s parents also participated and they hosted the brother of the girl who stayed with us. There were visits between the Palmer and the Parker farms so that brother and sister could visit each other during their respective stays,” recalled Parker.
Parker became an Alvirne trustee in the 1980s and began to appreciate Webb’s contribution to Alvirne. “He not only was a man of vision, he was a planner, and knew how to make things happen,” she said. “The fact that Hudson named the CTE Center for him while he was involved with its operation speaks to the gratitude Hudson felt for Webb Palmer. And, don’t forget the “web” weathervane that appeared on the cupola of the rebuilt Alvirne barn after it was destroyed by fire.”
Leonard Nase was hired as an assistant principal at Alvirne High School during the 1972-1973 year, and served as Alvirne’s principal from 1978 to his retirement in 1998. “What impressed me right away about Webb was that this was a guy whose moral compass was always pointed in the right direction. His character was an example for students and staff. When he was teaching, he truly was a gifted teacher in how well he related to his students, maybe even more so with those students who weren’t having a lot of success academically.
“He was a life skills teacher; he taught the traits of integrity, honesty and hard work and did an unbelievable amount of work to enhance the vocational program. When he was looking to build the business program, he went out and bought a bank (that had closed) and he moved all the equipment over! I couldn’t be more impressed than by Webb Palmer. Learning by doing, one of the most effective ways of teaching,” said Nase.
“I met Webb in August of 1996 (thank you, Candy Friborg) after being hired by the Hudson School District,” began Hudson School District Music Director and Alvirne Band Director Gerry Bastien. “Candy insisted that I meet him first as he was Alvirne High School, not just the director of the vocational center. Within five minutes after meeting Webb, I felt that I had known him my whole life,” said Bastien. “Webb had a way about him that embraced you. I knew he was the ‘go to’ guy. The quick hello turned out to be an hour plus ‘sit down.’
“He took me around the voc. center and gave me the whole story (one of many that I would be privy to). We quickly became not only administrative colleagues but friends. I was just in awe of his vision of the vocational center and his command of respect from other administrators and teachers. His opinionated banter was a breath of fresh air- Webb told it the way it was! Twenty years ago we talked about the voc. renovation and how could we include the arts (music and art) on that side of the building. Today, his vision is being entertained. He was my inspiration to continue the fight for marching band after it had been voted down and pretty much thought dead in the water. He made sure I never gave up and always was there with an idea of how to make it accepted.
Bastien continued, “Webb definitely bled Maroon and Gold and it was contagious! [My wife] Dee and I were very fortunate to visit him at the Elliot and at Hillsborough County Nursing Home prior to his passing. He always wanted to know ‘What’s happening at Alvirne?’ He was proud and happy to share his convalescent experiences as he met former students who were taking care of him as RNs, thanks to the voc. center Health Occupation program. I’ll always hear his voice telling my favorite story: “Mr. Shepard, I may not know how many farmers will graduate from Alvirne High School, but I can tell you this! I’ll graduate more farmers from Alvirne than we’ll graduate NBA basketball stars!” (Webb Palmer in a discourse with the school board over the support of the farm)
Webb connected with people throughout his life, at Pinkerton Academy, at the University of New Hampshire, where he was a member of Alpha Gamma Rho Fraternity, at Alvirne High School, at FFA conventions, at church. His circle of friends and admirers grew larger with each passing year. One of his earliest friends was Benjamin Hamblett. Hamblett and his wife, Mary, attended Webb’s calling hours, and Benjamin’s name tag read, “Friends since 1939.”
“Yes, we were friends since 1939, since a Sunday school picnic at the First Baptist Church in Derry,” recalled Hamblett. “We were together in Sunday school for quite a few years. Then, in junior high, I remember Webb came up to me and asked me to go to youth fellowship. I hadn’t been in a long time. We became good friends, I rode my bike to Webb’s family farm, all the way across Derry, all the time,” said Hamblett. In retrospect, this could have been Webb’s first venture into believing in and encouraging others; Hamblett became a minister, and served in various churches in New Hampshire until his retirement, and he still assists as an interim minister when called upon.
“Webb claimed that back in elementary school I said I wanted to be a minister, but I never remembered that. The first time I preached, Webb was my worship leader, he was in college, and 20 years later he still remembered my three points, probably better than I did,” said Hamblett. Reverend Hamblett said he was at seminary when Webb and Marge married, and, while he was not yet ordained, it was the first wedding he participated in. “I remember visiting Webb at the new vocational center. I was amazed at the facility but also the way he went about getting it done, asking businesses what they needed the students to know when they get out in the business world, and then developing the curriculum. He was ahead of his time,” Hamblett said. Reverend Hamblett also recalled that every person he met at the new center spoke glowingly about his friend Webb, and yet Webb was so humble about it all.
Webb liked to say, with a twinkle in his eye, “I’m just a simple farmer.” To be sure, he loved to work the land, he loved farming and he loved the outdoors. Two years ago, Webb shared these words: “I had the greatest job a man could have. My students were such great kids. They were good with their hands and their brains. It was simple; treat your students the way you want to be treated, with respect. Let them learn by example. If you want them to work, grab a shovel and start working yourself.”
“My gosh, if everybody was a ‘simple farmer’ like Webb, the world would be a different place,” concluded Reverend Hamblett.
Webb is survived by his wife, Marjorie “Marge” Palmer of Derry; his son, David Palmer, and his wife, Paula, of Concord; his daughter, Melissa Polk of Derry; four grandchildren, Danielle and Jessica Palmer and Ashlynn and Rebecca Polk; three step-grandchildren, Keeley, Raenor and Levi; two step-great-grandchildren, and two nieces and two nephews.
Thank you to his wife and family for sharing Webb with us all.
The public is invited to a celebration of Webb’s life on Saturday, Oct. 15 at 1 p.m. at Alvirne High School’s gymnasium, 200 Derry Road, followed by a reception at the school.
Memorial contributions may be made to two programs with which Webb was very involved: NH FFA Foundation, 295 Sheepdavis Rd., Concord, NH 03301 or the Educational Foundation of Alpha Gamma Rho (AGR), c/o David Bronson, 5 Vanessa Ln., Stratham, NH 03883.
In addition, donations may be made to the Wilbur Palmer Scholarship Fund, c/o Alvirne High School, 200 Derry Rd., Hudson NH 03051.