Former Gwinnett Commission Chairwoman Lillian Webb tells stories from her decades of public service during a “Success Lives Here” breakfast hosted by the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce Thursday. She was named the Chamber’s Citizen of the Year earlier this year. (Staff Photo: Camie Young)
Lillian Webb has never shied away from making a stink.
In fact, she made stink bombs and sparklers in her basement as a girl, she said Thursday, telling a life story that began as a child playing with a chemistry set, drawing her to become the only woman in her science classes in college and a lifetime of breaking glass ceilings in Gwinnett politics.
Webb, who was the first female city councilwoman and then first female mayor in Norcross before becoming the first female commission chair for Gwinnett, shared stories Thursday during a Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce breakfast, celebrating her naming earlier this year as the group’s Woman of the Year.
From her early days in Norcross politics, where she first gained office in 1969, Webb talked about tackling problems no matter what the critics said.
A “sorely needed” upgrade to the city water system brought detractors because it tore up every street in Norcross, but Webb said she saw the need as she watched volunteer firefighters battle a blaze without the water pressure they needed.
Later, serving on the hospital authority, leaders moved forward with building a new facility some felt was unnecessary.
“We got a lot of criticism, but the statistics showed (the need),” Webb said, a sentiment that was echoed when she talked about the building of the “white elephant” — the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center, which is now nearing another expansion — the county jail, the civic center and other projects. “We felt the need and we jumped in when we felt like it was important.”
From the story of winning a man’s vote because she continued her campaign waving to voters from the back of a flat-bed truck in the rain, to taking a trip in an airplane for the first touchdown on an expanded runway for Briscoe Field, to the woman who brought a coffin to the commission offices to protest the building of the jail, Webb recounted the time in Gwinnett’s history when the county boasted the fastest growth in the nation.
“We worked hard,” Webb said of campaigning door-to-door for votes to become the first woman in the county commission chair’s seat in 1984. “It wasn’t a feminist issue. It was a woman who felt the need and had the time and energy.”
Now 85, Webb played a role in developing the first county parks and library programs and first professional fire-fighting staff. She recounted throwing pennies on the carpet at a Rotary Club meeting to convince county residents that a new idea for a one-percent sales tax would add up to infrastructure such as Sugarloaf Parkway, which she and other leaders named after a once-famous horse, she noted.
“I swallowed hard,” Webb said a couple times during the discussion. Once as she talked about spending the night behind bars the night before the new county jail opened. And again when she recalled thinking she had blown a meeting with then-Ohio based NCR by selling the county on its merits but not offering up any tax breaks, before later learning that the company would open a Duluth office, which may have set the stage for moving its headquarters there decades later.
“You can see Lillian has done a lot,” said Chuck Button, who served as county manager during Webb’s tenure and moderated Thursday’s talk. “That group (of commissioners) really, really lead, took a lot of risks.”
The long-time politician gave credit to her fellow commissioners as well as her husband Jack, who had lost a council campaign himself and learned of his wife’s campaign when he read that she qualified in the newspaper. Still, through the decades, he supported his wife at home and at political functions, where he often stepped outside for a break with a cigar.
Auburn Mayor Linda Blechinger said Webb, who returned to work as Norcross mayor for another decade after her time at the county commission, is a “pioneer” for female politicians.
“She paved the way for people like myself,” said Snellville Mayor Kelly Kautz, adding she found it refreshing to hear about Webb confronting controversies while she faces her own political foes in a legal battle with her own council members. “It was 40 years ago, but she has walked the same path I do today.”
Blechinger added: “I love the fact that she focused on what the issues were and the projects and not the fact she was a woman. She’s a great role model.”