Gordon Abbott Jr., a conservationist, journalist, World War ll Navy veteran, and third-generation resident of Manchester, died from complications of prostate cancer on April 17 surrounded by his loving family. He was 85.
Devoted to his family, friends, the community and the institutions he served, Gordon will always be remembered for his rare zest for life. He loved people — young and old — and enjoyed nothing more than hearing someone’s story: where they grew up, what they did and how they felt about the world around them. Gordon was engaging, charismatic and intellectually curious. An independent spirit, he charted his own course both on land and at sea.
Born in Boston on May 2, 1927, to Gordon Abbott and Esther Lowell Cunningham, Gordon was a lifelong learner. He graduated from Dexter School in Brookline, Brooks School in North Andover and then Harvard College, where as part of the class of 1950, he lived in Lowell House, joined the A.D. Club, and majored in social anthropology with a focus on Asia. He played freshman hockey, skied on the varsity ski team for four years, and raced single and double sculls, including competing for a berth at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland.
A year pursuing an MBA at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania convinced him that he would never be The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. At heart, he was a reporter, as well as a journalist and teacher. Thus, he began his professional career as an English instructor, dorm master and coach at Brooks School. He wrote advertising copy for Batten Barton Durstine & Osborn in New York and eventually Boston. For more than a decade he served as editor of two prize-winning daily North Shore newspapers, the Gloucester Daily Times and Beverly Evening Times. His passion for writing and history inspired him to write three books: Saving Special Places, A History of The Trustees of Reservations, Pioneer Of The Land Movement; Jeffrey’s Creek, A Story Of The People, Places, And Events In The Town That Came To Be Called Manchester-by-the-Sea; and For The Encouragement Of Yachting, A History Of The Manchester Yacht Club With A Collection Of Personal Memories. Never without a book, he was particularly fond of military and naval history and biographies.
Gordon’s love of the outdoors and the environment led him to become the first director of The Trustees of Reservations in 1966, where, during his 18-year tenure, it became the largest independent owner of conservation land in the commonwealth. In 1991, Gordon received the prestigious Charles Eliot Award from the Trustees for his exceptional service and dedication to the environment. Gordon adored the mountains, where he skied and hiked all his life. The open sea offered him an infinite sense of excitement and freedom. As a boy, he crewed on his father’s and grandfather’s sailboats. At the age of 17 and a half, he entered the Navy and served aboard a minesweeper in the Pacific Ocean theater. He loved to row, as well as sail his own boats, particularly up and down the coast of Maine. Gordon also relished racing and competed around Cape Ann, Bermuda, Halifax and England, where he was one of the first Americans elected to the Royal Ocean Racing Club.
Following his retirement in 1984, Gordon received a one-year appointment as a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s School of Design, Department of Landscape Architecture. A founder and first treasurer of the Land Trust Alliance, Washington, D.C., a service organization for the nation’s land trusts, he proposed and helped establish in 1984 the Center for Rural Massachusetts of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he served as associate director of the center and as adjunct professor of regional planning. In 1990 Gordon earned a master’s degree in American studies from the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
Philanthropy was always important to Gordon, who served on the governing boards of Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Mount Auburn Cemetery, and the USS Constitution Museum, where he was also chairman of the education committee and given the Charles Frances Adams Award in 2004. Named for the museum’s founder, this award is presented to a person who has given of themselves for the betterment of the community, and through whose good works have resulted in profound positive change for the citizens of the community. Gordon was a trustee of Shore Country Day School in Beverly, Brooks School, and Connecticut College. He was elected director of the Harvard Alumni Association and for many years was on the committee for the Happy Observance of Commencement. From 2010 to 2013 he served as secretary of his Harvard class of 1950.
Throughout his life Gordon belonged to numerous organizations, including the Manchester Yacht Club, where he served as commodore from 1974 to 1975. He was also a member of the Cruising Club of America, Ski Club Hochebirge and the Altebirge ski club, The Society of the Cincinnati, Club of Odd Volumes, and Essex County Club. He was a former member of the Somerset Club, Tavern Club, the Tennis & Racquet Club and Union Boat Club, all of Boston; the Nantucket Yacht club, and the Society of Professional Journalists, of which he was New England president for two years.
Active in town affairs, Gordon was a member of the Manchester planning board, chairman of the Harbor Advisory committee, and served on the board of the Manchester Historical Society. In 2003 he was awarded Outstanding Volunteer of the Year for the town of Manchester.
He leaves his wife, Katharine Oliver Stanley-Brown, originally of Washington, D.C., and four children: Christopher Cunningham Abbott of New York city and Manchester, Katrina Schermerhorn Abbott of Cambridge, Victoria Abbott Riccardi of Newton and Alexandra Garfield Abbott of Boston, along with three loving sons in law and five devoted grandchildren.
Gordon’s philosophy of life was: “Leave the world a better place than how you found it.” Those who knew Gordon will miss his joyous spirit, intellectual curiosity, easy engagement with people from all walks of life, and enthusiasm for the past, present, and what might lie just around the corner.
A celebration of Gordon’s life will be held on Saturday, April 27, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Beverly Farms, at 11 a.m. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in his memory to Maine Coast Heritage Trust, 1 Bowdoin Mill Island, Suite 201, Topsham, Maine 04086 (mcht.org).
Arrangements are under the care of Campbell-Lee Moody, Russell Funeral Home in Beverly. For information or to send a message of condolence, visit campbellfuneral.com.