One day in 1989, a man called Thomas Webber’s St. Paul office and asked to talk. He was a reporter for a Catholic newspaper, he said, and wanted an interview. Webber, then executive director of Planned Parenthood, agreed.
But the man wasn’t a reporter. When he arrived, he closed the office door and attacked Webber. It took two employees to pull the man away, and Webber ended up in the emergency room.
During his tenure, Webber was no stranger to threats and the violence that could follow. There was a firebombing in the 1970s that destroyed Planned Parenthood’s St. Paul clinic. There were pickets outside his house. His family was harassed.
“Definitely, he was targeted more than anybody in the state of Minnesota,” said Connie Perpich, who began working with Webber in the early 1980s. “More than anybody, he had that on his back.”
Webber led Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota for 30 years, navigating turbulent times for women’s reproductive rights both at home and across the nation. He died Thursday at age 71.
Sarah Stoesz, Planned Parenthood’s current president and CEO, said Webber paved the way for the work that she and the organization perform now.
“He just stood his ground year after year after year, and never backed down,” she said. Webber retired in 2000.
He arrived at Minnesota’s Planned Parenthood in the 1970s and made it his mission to expand its reproductive health resources, particularly for women in rural areas.
“It was always about the women that we served,” said Julie Andberg, who started working at Planned Parenthood in 1980. “And how we needed to be there not only to protect the services, but to provide the services.”
When South Dakota lost its only abortion provider, Webber stepped up, flying in outside doctors to see patients. To this day, Planned Parenthood clinics are the only abortion providers in South Dakota.
Planned Parenthood staff working under Webber struggled with the constant roadblocks thrown up by anti-abortion groups, the Legislature or the federal government. Webber was diligent about keeping the group nonpartisan, and he recruited supporters across political affiliations.
Marlene Kayser, Planned Parenthood’s board president from 1989-1990, said the board had to push Webber to take time off. When he finally did, his choice of vacation — a motorcycle trip — took his co-workers by surprise. He never quite stopped working, though — he checked in on the office throughout the two-week trip, placing calls from pay phones hundreds of miles away.
Webber is remembered as serious and tireless in his work, keeping the organization going with his fierce passion for social justice.
“Those of us who worked with him through the ’80s and ’90s really feel like we’ve lost a family member,” Andberg said.
His former colleagues remember a particular story — lore, at this point — about the days after the firebombing. Though the building was destroyed, a box of fundraising letters survived. The flames had charred the paper, but the letters, regardless, were sent.
Webber is survived by his wife, Sandy, and two daughters. Services are pending.