October 22, 1924 – June 28, 2005
Russ was the 8th of their 9 children. When their 6th child, Margaret, died at the age of two in 1919, it resulted in an age gap in the children. Because of this, Phyllis, Russ and Kenny ended up closer to one another than they were to their older siblings.
Like many families at the time, there were lots of children and not a lot of money to go around. By the time Russ was old enough for school, the Great Depression had begun and belts got even tighter. Russ and Kenny would walk the train tracks in South Norwood looking for coal that had fallen off the train. Occasionally the fireman on the train would see them and toss a shovel full off the side . They would take the coal home to heat the house.
Near Sumner street, the Bird Paper company would buy and collect old clothes and rags and use them to make paper. Coins, jewelry and other items would fall out during the process and settle into a holding pit. The boys would comb through the piles in hip boots., almost always finding a few pennies. On a good day they might find a nickel or even a dime. A dime in the early 1930’s would get you a hamburger, a movie ticket, or a newspaper and a cup of coffee. The boys spent lots of free time there. Russ even took his son Jimmy there when he was a small boy.
Russ’ grandmother, Christine McLeod Webber, owned a farm on Winter Street next to Highland Cemetery. The property stretched from what is now the dump road all the way to the Westwood line. Christine would offer to pay the grand kids a nickel if they helped pick strawberries on the farm. One day Russ came and picked strawberries for her but when Russ asked for his money, Christine explained she had to sell the Strawberries first. Russ was angry and said he would never work on the farm again.
Although he was shorter than average at 5’4, he was athletic and strong as an ox. South Norwood in those days was a rough place and he was considered one of the toughest guys in the neighborhood. He had more than his fair share of street fights and by all accounts he won more than he lost. Like most boys in the neighborhood he played baseball and basketball, but he really shined on the football field, where he kicked the ball well enough barefoot to practice with the Dedham High football team. Russ and Kenny learned to ice skate on the pond used for Bird and Son’ (now Hollingworth & Vose)near the Walpole line.
The house where Russ was born was located at 717 Pleasant St. (Street View). It was torn down in the late 1990’s. Although family moved quite often in his childhood, they stayed in South Norwood (which Russ always called “The Flats”. ) , finally settling at 60 Highview St. (Street View). This is the address listed in military enlistment records in 1942 when Horace (31), Preston( 29), Edgar (27), Russell (19) and Kenny (17) all joined the armed forces in 1942. Elliot, aged 35, was considered too old to join and stayed home in Norwood to care for Ma and Pa.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Navy on December 7, 1941, men from all over the country signed up for the armed services and Norwood was no exception. Russ enlisted in the United States Marine Corps on January 12th, 1942, at the age of 18. Years later when asked why he joined the Marines instead of the other services, he said all the recruiters were lined up in a row, telling the people passing by why their service was the better one to join. When he passed the Marine recruiter, the man said “Semper Fi”, but Russ thought he said “Seventy Five” which was more than the Army paid, so he signed up for the Marines instead. This is the type of story Russ was known for- it could be 100% true, made up for the sake of a laugh, or somewhere between and you could never be quite sure.
Russ went to boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina and was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. Nicknamed the “Blue Diamond,” or “The Old Breed,” the 1st Marine Division is the most decorated unit of its size in the United States Marine Corps.
By March of 1942 Russ was stationed at New River, North Carolina and in April moved on to San Diego California for more training. Despite his short stature, due to his brute strength Russ was assigned the job of carrying the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) for his unit (company I), which weighed almost 25 pounds and was almost 4 feet long.
During his first campaign, Russ participated in the Battle of Guadalcanal (including the battle at Battle of Edson’s Ridge) from Sept 18 1942 – Jan 4 1943. He and his fellow Marines called it “starvation island”. They ran so short of food that some Marines resorted to eating Japanese rations. Russ said they were terrible compared to the American K rations he was used to but he was so hungry he didn’t care.
When the operation was over, the regiment was sent to Melbourne, Australia to rest and refit. During their stay, they were billeted in the Melbourne Cricket Ground which was near the center of the city. The 7th Marines were 30 kms South-East at the bay-side suburbs of Balcombe, Mt Martha and Frankston. The Australians treated the Marines like heroes and proved to be wonderful hosts.
On August 30, 1943 Russ wrote a letter to Elliot from San Diego. He said he was recovering from heavy fighting in the Pacific.
During August and September of 1943 the bulk of the Division left Australia and moved North. As part of the campaign to secure New Guinea, the combat on New Britain took place in some of the most challenging and rugged terrain anywhere on earth. Paper, clothing and leather quickly rotted or fell apart in the intense humidity and heavy rainfall. Weapons and ammunition corroded quickly. Russ contracted Malaria there for the second time of the Pacific campaign, just after he turned 20.
During April 1944 the Old Breed deployed to its new home on Pavuvu in the Russell Islands. When they first set eyes on Pavuvu, the Division’s Marines were discouraged. Most of the island was covered by coconut plantations and rotting coconuts covered the island. Sand crabs infested the island and found their way into every tent and foxhole. Russ said it was the worst place they visited but as miserable as it was, at least there was no malaria.
On 15 September 1944, the First Marine Division assaulted Peleliu in the Palau islands. Peleliu was a brutally hot and humid place under the best of conditions and the Marines suffered in the heat. Air support blasted away much of the vegetation from the island’s ridges, leaving bare black coral that radiated the heat and offered little concealment from the enemy. Russ fought in the battle of Bloody Nose Ridge, considered by many to be the most difficult fight that the U.S. military encountered in the entire war. Over 70% of the 1st Marine Division were killed or wounded during the battle, and Russ was one of them. His wounds at Peleliu on September 29th earned him one of his two Purple Hearts and a ticket home. He also suffered hearing damage in one ear from artillery, which proved to be permanent.
After being honorably discharged as a Private First Class, Russ returned to Norwood and went back to work at Bird & Son’s in East Walpole. The Bird plant made roofing shingles and paper products and was the largest employer in both Norwood and Walpole at the time.
Russ was a founding member of the 1st Marine Division Reunion Association in Boston after the war and was elected President. He was extremely proud of his Marine service throughout his lifetime.
He began dating Florence Howard, from neighboring Dedham, Massachusetts, in 1951. She volunteered at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in West Roxbury and he would sometimes give her a ride home.
In November 1950, he took her to the Thanksgiving football game between Dedham and Norwood, but told her he wouldn’t be seeing her that night. She knew he was also dating a nurse from Braintree who he was going to see. When he was with Florence he would tell her stories about the nurse and they would laugh about them, and apparently he also talked to the nurse about Florence. The night of the football game the nurse had finally had enough and said “All you do is talk about her, maybe you should just go be with her tonight”, and Russ said “That’s a good idea!” and went back to see Florence. He never saw the nurse again.
Florence got an apartment on the corner of Cleveland St. at 69 Railroad Avenue in Norwood. She lived there with her friend Kitty McDonough for a while and when Kitty moved out she took over the rent. On August 10th, 1952, Florence’s 28th birthday, she and Russ got married in the apartment byt a Justice of the Peace and Russ moved into the apartment soon after. Russ’ sister Doris was the maid of honor, and Russ’ friend Pete Bamba was his best man. After the ceremony, they went to Chinatown in Boston for dinner, then hopped on the bus and went to California on their honeymoon. Kitty McDonough watched Cynthia and Jimmy while they were away. Florence didn’t think Cynthia would mind but she cried most of the time they were away, while Jimmy spent time with the other kids.
The honeymoon bus trip was Florence’s first trip outside New England. She was surprised how much she loved the sightseeing out the window of the bus and her lifelong love of travelling began that day.
In March of 1953, Russ’ mother Margaret Colbert Webber died. His father Pa needed help running the house, so in December Russ, Florence, Cynthia, Jimmy and 2 month old Richard moved in to his house further up the street at 286 Railroad ave.
Once Russ and Florence started having more children, the house was becoming cramped, so Pa moved in with his daughter Eva. They bought the house from Pa for $6000 and Todd, Sharon, Jeff and Mark were all born while they lived at 286 Railroad ave. The house still stands at the present location, although an addition was added in 2010.
Now with 7 children, they needed an even larger house. On August 9th, 1965 the family took out a mortgage to pay off 286 Railroad Avenue and bought the house at 311 Nahatan st. The backyards of the houses almost touched, only separated by the yard at 3 School St. Most of the family’s belongings were moved straight through these backyards. Built in 1910, the house at 311 Nahatan st was a brown, wood shingled house set up as an upstairs/downstairs two family residence when they purchased it.
The family would go for long rides in the car, with all the kids piled into the backseat and often with Mark laying in the back window. Sometimes they would go to visit someone specific, like Russ’ sister Phyllis in New Hampshire, but often they would just head in a direction and see where they ended up. He continued to love long drives for the rest of his life.
When the 1st Marine Division was trying to expand their membership, Russ drove all over Massachusetts knocking on doors to sign people up. Once when looking for a particular veteran, they went to Roxbury, where they were given a new address he had moved to in Needham. From there they went to another town, and another until they finally arrived in Weston. They never tracked the guy down, but the resident of the last house in Weston said Russ should join the FBI with those kind of detective skills.
Russ attended various 1st Marine Division reunions throughout his lifetime in places like San Antonio, South Carolina, New Hampshire, New Orleans, South Dakota, Washington D.C., Baltimore, San Diego, and Chicago (which was Florence’s favorite). In 1965 they brought all the kids with them to the reunion in New York city, which they regretted because the kids were wild. Right before the Philadelphia reunion in 1968, Florence got her driver’s license. The day before the trip, Russ got a spider bite on his hand and new driver Florence had to drive all the way home from Philly.
They also loved to stop at flea markets, swap meats and yard sales. With so many children and not much money, they took advantage of any kind of deal they could get. Russ’ brother Kenny, who ran the town dump, would also call Russ if he saw anyone throwing away anything the family could use.
One day Russ and Florence stopped at a church on Chapel Street in Norwood where they were holding an event. One of the exhibits was an eight foot tall metal Eiffel Tower. She always wanted to visit France and never got to go, so Russ bought the Eiffel tower and put it on the front lawn. That was sometime before or around 1973. The Eiffel tower was hidden from view by several pine trees in front of the house until the mid 1980’s, but as the trees fell or were removed, the tower became a local landmark. To this day people stop and take photos of it or with it. A photo in front of the tower is often listed on local scavenger hunt lists.
In the mid-1960’s Russ got a job as the junior custodian at the Shattuck School, across the street from the house on Nahatan st. Over the next 20 years, Russ worked in every school in town. He retired from the school department in 1987 and volunteered as a playground monitor at the Oldham school until 1989 when he retired for good.
Once he retired, Russ loved a good cup of tea at home and liked to eat his meals in bed. For several years he would head down to McDonald’s on Broadway every morning and have coffee with his friends and “shoot the breeze”.
Upon meeting someone for the first time, he would always ask where they lived or where they grew up, in an attempt to find someone in common who he knew. And he did seem to know someone everywhere he went, even in the strangest, most random, faraway places. When visiting his daughter Sharon in Hawaii, he heard a voice one day and recognized it as someone he knew from Massachusetts. It happened again once when visiting his son Jimmy in Louisiana when he bumped into someone he had served with in the Marine Corps in WWII who he hadn’t seen in almost 40 years. He knew the man instantly just by hearing his voice from across the room.
Always a talented storyteller, he would spin tales for friends, family, and complete strangers alike on a variety of topics.
Over the years, Russ invited many people to stay in the house at 311 Nahatan St. When there was a fire in the apartment across the street, a house painter from Ireland had no place to go, so Russ let him stay on the couch for a few months.
For many years he marched in the annual Norwood 4th of July parade and was chosen as the Grand Marshall of the parade in 2004.
Parties on the Fourth of July were an annual tradition in the Webber household going back to at least the early 1970’s. They started as smaller events with family and a few friends and grew larger and larger as the years went on. By the 1980’s, most of the guest were friends of Russ’s kids, but many family members and friends of both Russ and Florence also attended each year. Motorcycles lined the sidewalk out in front of the house and either a live band played or there was karaoke in the backyard. Russ loved to sing and really enjoyed being able to do it at home in front of so many family and friends.
And even though he was never a drinker, Russ never missed a chance to attend karaoke night at local bars and pubs.
Notorious for having a stubborn streak and a dislike for authority, he was known just as well for his generosity. He was always willing to do you a favor, even if it took him out of his way or caused him an inconvenience, but if you crossed him watch out!
Russ had a double hip replacement in 1980 that was expected to last him 10 years, but he did not have them replaced again. 20 years later, the pain in his hips was bad enough that he decided to explore another hip replacement. During the pre-op testing, doctors discovered that his arteries were badly clogged, and he had triple bypass surgery in January 2005. Recovery for the bypass was very slow and after a short rehab in Harrington House in Walpole, Russ was moved to Charwell House in Norwood where he died on June 28, 2005.
He was one of a kind and loved by so many. He is still missed very much by his friends and family.