William Wright Abbot III ’43

William Wright Abbot III ’43, of Charlottesville, Va., died peacefully in his sleep on Aug. 31 at the age of 87. Abbot was born in Louisville, Ga., on May 20, 1922, the son of William Wright Abbot, Jr. and Lillian Carswell Abbot. He attended Davidson for two years. In 1941 he transferred to the University of Georgia, where he was awarded the baccalaureate degree upon his entering the U.S. Navy in 1943. During WWII, Abbot served in small craft in the Pacific Ocean and in the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas. He would later quip that he felt he reached the pinnacle of his own personal authority at the age of 22, when, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he was made captain of PC 504, a 110-foot submarine chaser. Abbot’s career as a teacher spanned nearly 50 years. It began when he was assigned to teach celestial navigation to young naval cadets at Duke University in the spring of 1946. That fall, he returned to his hometown to teach science and English grammar at his old high school. Under the G.I. Bill, Abbot went on to study history at Duke University, where he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees. After completing his Ph.D. in 1953, he was hired as an assistant professor of history by the College of William and Mary. He met his wife, Eleanor Pearre, in Williamsburg, and their two sons were born while he was a member of the William and Mary faculty. Except for brief stints with the history departments at Northwestern University and Rice University, Abbot remained at William and Mary until 1966, when he joined the faculty at the University of Virginia. There he held the chair of James Madison professor of history for 26 years, serving twice as chairman of the Corcoran Department of History. Among historians, Abbot was best known as an editor. His association with The William and Mary Quarterly, the magazine of early American History, began in 1953, and he was its editor from 1961 until 1966. He also edited The Journal of Southern History in 1960 and 1961. During the latter years of his career at the University of Virginia, he devoted most of his efforts to editing The Papers of George Washington, serving as chief editor from 1977 until 1992. Although he retired from the university in 1992, Abbot continued to edit individual volumes of the Washington papers until 1998, by which time close to 50 volumes were in print. In addition to editing magazines and documents, Abbot wrote two books and several articles, but he believed his chief contributions as a teacher and historian came from the attentive reading and detailed responses that he gave over the years to what his students, and many of his fellow historians, wrote. Abbot was always active in the affairs of his profession and the institutions to which he belonged. He served as president of the Alpha chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and on the councils of the Institute of Early American History and Culture and the Southern Historical Association. For 20 years he was on the board of editors of The Virginia Quarterly Review and was a member of Gridiron Club at the University of Georgia and the Raven Society at the University of Virginia. In 1989, the Virginia Historical Society made him a life member, and in 1998 the College of William and Mary awarded him the honorary degree of doctor of humane letters. He is survived by his wife of 51 years, Eleanor Abbot, 804 Rugby Rd., Charlottesville, VA 22903-1629; his sons, Wright Abbot (Cynthia Cox) and John Abbot; grandchildren, Will and Catherine; his sister, Lillian Easterlin; and Louise Hardeman Abbot, the widow of his younger brother, James Carswell Abbot.