Anthony S. Abbott of Davidson, NC passed away on October 3, 2020 at the age of 85. He was in hospice care in Statesville surrounded by loved ones at his passing.
Tony will be remembered as a tremendous scholar and teacher, a talented and influential writer, a selfless volunteer to his community, a steadfast friend and a devoted husband and father.
He received his early education at a junior boarding school, Fay School, in Massachusetts and later graduated from the Kent School in Connecticut. A 1957 graduate of Princeton, where he majored in English, he went on to receive his Ph.D from Harvard and then taught for two years at Bates College.
In 1964, he moved–along with his wife Susan–to Davidson College to teach modern drama and American Literature. He taught there for 37 years, serving as chair of the English department for seven of them. During that time he became a truly beloved teacher and was granted some of the college’s highest awards, including the Hunter-Hamilton Love of Teaching Award and the Thomas Jefferson Award. He remains the Charles A. Dana Professor of English Emeritus and today the Abbott English Honors Program at Davidson is named in his honor and “welcomes and promotes original work produced by senior majors in the Department of English, work of exceptional quality and polish that makes a contribution to the field.”
Former students describe him as “young at heart” and remember him not just as an inspirational instructor but as “the kind of professor friend many of us needed during our college years of exploration and growth” and recall fondly taking walks with him on the campus or traveling with him on college trips.
After his retirement from the college in 2001, Tony continued to teach. He was a visiting professor at Catawba College, the writer-in-residence at Lenoir Rhyne and taught workshops at Queens University and at colleges, universities and churches throughout the state.
For over 50 years he ran the Covenant Sunday School classes at Davidson College Presbyterian Church and regularly taught seminars on Walker Percy, Frederick Buechner, John Irving and Flannery O’Connor. In his final years, he devoted much of his time and thought to the DavidsonLearns program, designed to promote lifelong learning for “mature” students. He was still conducting classes via zoom two weeks before his passing.
In 2015, Tony received the North Carolina Award for Literature, the highest civilian honor given by the state, and he is slated to be inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame on October 11, 2020. Best known as a poet, he once described himself as “poet who happened to write novels.”
His first book of poems, The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and he went on to publish eight books of poetry, the last of which he completed this year and which will be published posthumously. The accessibility of his work has led many readers to embrace poetry. Said one, “Tony taps into everyday language and situations of love and loss. He elevates the minutiae of life into universal truths, without rendering the language and images obscure and impossible to understand.”
His first novel, Leaving Maggie Hope, won the 2003 Novello Literary Award, and was followed by a sequel, The Three Great Secret Things. He is also the author of four books of literary criticism, two on modern drama.
As a teacher and a writer, Tony has been a bridge builder between those communities. He has been an integral part of the North Carolina Writers’ Network and the North Carolina Poetry Society, bringing writers of all styles and genres together with readers and scholars.
A dynamic reader, he called upon his theater experience to make his readings into performances and he loved doing readings for schools, churches, bookstores and book clubs around the country–hundreds of them over the years.
Tony was devoted to the town and the people of Davidson. He was one of the founders of the Davidson Community Players and directed or acted in dozens of shows through the years. He coached youth baseball teams and led church youth groups. He volunteered for the Red Cross, driving patients to their treatments and developing deep, meaningful relationships with them.
In 2018, the town honored him with the Jack Burney Award for Community Service in recognition for his lifetime of voluntary efforts. But perhaps his greatest service to the town was the way he connected folks to one another–“If you were friends with Tony, you had a vast network of friends you just hadn’t met yet,” said one community member. “Tony wanted everyone he knew to be friends with everyone else he knew.”
His love for the Davidson community was palpable and it helped the town maintain its sense of warmth and connectedness throughout his lifetime.
Above all else, he was a devoted family man. His mother died when he was very young and he did not know his father well until later in his life. Perhaps because of or perhaps in spite of the distance from his parents, he was wholly committed to building and raising a connected family. He met Susan Dudley when they worked together at a ranch in Wyoming. They were married in 1960 and celebrated their 60th anniversary together a month before his passing.
Together, they had four children–David (who married Donna Stancil Abbott), Stephen (Katy Smith Abbott), Andrew (Katie Weiss Abbott) and Carolyn, who passed away at age four–and seven grandchildren: Robert, James, Elliott, Josie, Clara, Henry and John.
Tony and Susan loved hosting the extended family at their lake home, traveling with them, and playing long, competitive games of cards or Boggle or Rummikub. Tony often recited poetry to them before meals or at family occasions.
He will be buried beside Carolyn in the family plot in Davidson. He still describes her death as his most life-changing event, and she remained central to his life as the muse for his poetry.
A service to honor Dr. Anthony S. Abbott will take place at 2:00 on October 17 at Davidson College Presbyterian Church. Because of the COVID crisis only family will be permitted in the sanctuary, but the service will be available via livestream, and the link will be available on the church website and distributed closer to the date.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to the Abbott Honors Program in English, Davidson College, Box 7170, Davidson NC 28035-7170; to the Davidson Community Players, PO Box 76, Davidson, NC 28036; or to the charity of your choice.
A service will be held for family only on October 17 at 2:00 pm. The service will also be livestreamed. Click here for the service Saturday at 2:00 pm. The Abbott family is under the care of Raymer-Kepner Funeral Home & Cremation Services.
Online condolences and memories may be shared at www.kepnerfh.com
Tony’s family is deeply interested in remembrances of his life. If you have stories or reflections that you would like to share, please email them to his son Stephen Abbott at firstname.lastname@example.org so that they can be included in Tony’s service or distributed to the family, as appropriate.