Who is the most famous North Carolinian today?

If you check the latest edition of the World Almanac as I do this time every year, you will find a list of “Famous North Carolinians.”

That list includes the following people but not today’s most famous person from our state.

Read over the names on the World Almanac list and then I will tell you today’s most famous person: David Brinkley, Shirley Caesar, John Coltrane, Stephen Curry, Rick Dees, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, Dale Earnhardt Sr., John Edwards, Ava Gardner, Richard Jordan Gatling, Billy Graham, Andy Griffith, O. Henry, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Michael Jordan, William Rufus King, Charles Kuralt, Meadowlark Lemon, Dolley Madison, Thelonious Monk, Edward R. Murrow, Richard Petty, James K. Polk, Charlie Rose, Carl Sandburg, Enos Slaughter, Dean Smith, James Taylor and Thomas Wolfe.

But that list does not include the North Carolinian most talked about across the world these past few days: a man who grew up in the Tally Ho community of Granville County.

On Christmas Day a $10 billion giant telescope to replace the aging Hubble scope was launched from French Guiana. So far, the launch has been successful. The device is already preparing to begin its observations by unfolding its antenna, mirror, and tennis-court-sized sunshield, as it moves toward a final orbit.

The Hubble, at work for more than 30 years, was named for Edwin Powell Hubble, an American astronomer who died in 1953. He was an important astronomer whose work provided evidence that the universe is expanding.

The new observatory-telescope will be about 100 times more sensitive than the Hubble. As described by Dennis Overbye in the Oct. 20, 2021, edition of The New York Times, “Orbiting the sun a million miles from Earth, it will be capable of bringing into focus the earliest stars and galaxies in the universe and closely inspecting the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets for signs of life or habitability.”


So, what does all this have to do with Granville County and the most talked-about North Carolinian?

The new telescope is named the James Webb Space Telescope. Like the Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, or Webb Telescope, or simply the Webb, will be in almost every news story about space exploration for many years. Every young person studying astronomy or reading about space will see his name. It will be everywhere.

Why is this critical device named for Webb?

Lewis Bowling, who, like Webb grew up working in the tobacco fields and barns of Granville County, explained in his column in the Dec. 30, 2021, edition of the Oxford Public Ledger, Granville County’s twice-weekly newspaper.

“James Webb, who grew up in the sticks like me, surrounded by great big fields of tobacco was the man most responsible for leading us to the moon. Let me clarify something: James Webb was born in Tally Ho near Stem, so he was a country boy like me, but obviously a lot smarter. Webb knew and worked for several presidents and was the National Aeronautics and Space Administration director under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. As North Carolina Congressman L.H. Fountain once said, ‘for the first time since the beginning of the world there are now footprints on the moon, and the major share of credit goes to a distinguished son of Granville County, James E. Webb.’”

I would make a bet that there will be a new entry in the 2023 World Almanac’s list of “Famous North Carolinians.”

James Webb from Tally Ho.

D.G. Martin is a retired lawyer, politician and university administrator. He hosted UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Bookwatch” for 20 years.