Remembering: Jack Webb
May 1953 — Jack Webb was tired. He did not look like the composed, cool, Sergeant Friday of Dragnet, but rather like a weary young man who needed rest. He had been working steadily for three days, getting the San Francisco Cerebral Palsy telethon set up, working with the Cerebral Palsy board, arranging ‘publicity, checking the station facilities, and setting up the performers.
He had been on stage now for nearly seventeen hours. He was more than physically fatigued; he was emotionally wrung out. But with it all he was grateful in his heart to the people of San Francisco for their wonderful support (they had given nearly two hundred thousand dollars). He was grateful, too, to the performers who had given so much of their time without thought of personal reward. Of all the performers, Jack—who was emceeing the show—had not left the stage in those seventeen hours, and he wondered where he would find the strength to finish.
According to Vincent Francis, General Chairman of the Northern California drive, Jack was giving his heart as well as his talents to the Cerebral Palsy charity. But there were reasons for this.
Jack had known suffering and privation. As a child he lived in a poor section of Los Angeles, went to one of the “downtown” high schools with a mixed racial population. It could be called a “poor” high school; but what its students lacked in wealth, they made up in democratic relationships with one another and in scholastic standing.
Jack was Student Body President of that high school. It helped to fix in his heart a feeling for the problems of the underprivileged. He had never forgotten; that was one reason he was on this stage now.
The Cerebral Palsy telethon was set up in such a way that any San Franciscan who phoned in a donation would get a request granted from the performers. They could also bring in their donations if they wished. At present, the auditorium was filled to capacity and there was a line of people outside that went around the block.
Jack looked out at the studio audience with weary eyes. He was almost ready to collapse when he noticed for the third time a little boy clutching a paper bag and standing with his mother at the edge of the stage.
Jack sent over an usher to encourage the pair. The usher came back with the message that the little boy wanted to talk to Jack. “Okay,” said Jack, “send him up.”
The boy’s mother led him onto the stage and turned him to face Jack. Then she gave ‘ him a little push as if to encourage him. Cautiously he went forward a few steps, then paused, still clutching his paper bag. His mother urged him on. He began again to walk very slowly forward, his head cocked to one side, as if he were listening.
A blanket of quiet fell suddenly on the audience, and the theatre grew still as a church. It was so quiet Jack could almost feel it.
As the little boy approached, Jack held out one hand, as if reaching. Then, when the boy touched Jack’s hand, he smiled.
“Hello. What’s your name?” asked Jack. “My name’s Richard Wuesterfeld,” said the little boy.
“And did you bring something for us, Dick?”
“Yes,” said the boy, “I brought this. . .“ and he held up the paper bag. “I brought this here. I collected it on my block, and I got it from my friends and my dad and mother, too, and from nice people I met on the street.”
“How much is it, Dick?”
“It’s two hundred and twenty-five dollars, and it’s all in there, and I want to give it to the boys and girls who can’t run and play the way I do.. . .“
Then Jack saw what it was about the little boy that seemed so strange. He was blind.
He walked with his head cocked to one side so he could hear; he held his hand in front of him as a guide. Yet he wanted to give the money he’d collected on the block to the boys and girls who couldn’t run and play the way he did! Jack’s eyes filled with quiet tears.
“That’s a pretty big gift, Dick” Jack’s voice was husky. “What would you like to have the performers do for you?”
“Gee, I’d like you to talk like Sergeant Friday—you know, like Sergeant Friday talks on Dragnet.” The little boy stuck his hands in his pocket and his childish voice mimicked Jack. “I’m Joe Friday,” he said. . . . “You know—like that, Mr. Webb.”
The audience was visibly moved. They found relief in tears, but Jack himself was too choked up to be able to comply with the child’s request.
“Dick, I can’t right now; but I’ll tell you what I will do; Next time you come to Los Angeles, I’ll see that you get to the studio to sit in on one of the shows. What do you think of that?”
“Gee, really? No kiddin’? You bet wait. You bet! So long, Mr. Webb, I’ll see you soon. Oh, boy!” And, with one hand in front of him, he ran off the stage into the arms of his mother.
Even with the tears, Jack felt refreshed, thanks to the little blind boy. His gift had put them over the top. The two hundred and twenty-five dollars he’d collected on his block had pushed the grand total over the two-hundred-thousand mark.
Jack felt inspired and refreshed. He forgot his fatigue and, with his eighteen hours almost up, went back to the station manager to beg for, more time. He promised he’d double the two hundred thousand if they would give him six more hours in which to raise it!
They gave him the time.
At the end of the twenty-four hour period, the telethon had raised better than four hundred thousand dollars! At the end of twenty-seven hours, they had half a million—$500,000! And the little blind boy’s words were still ringing in Jack’s ears:
“I want to give you this so the other boys and girls can run and play like I do—”
Jack stars in Dragnet—on NBC Radio, Sun., 9:30 P.M.—on NBC~TV, Thurs., 9 P.M. Both EST, sponsored by Chesterfield Cigarettes.
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