(Photo of Ab Abernethy by Bruce R. Partain, Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce)
(This story originally posted in 2008. Formatting was updated July 20, 2012)
By Bruce R. Partain
Nacogdoches County Chamber
Ab Abernethy named 2008 Citizen of the Year
Trying to categorize Ab Abernethy’s life is nearly impossible. Is he a scuba-diving folklorist, or a string bass-playing spelunker?
Was that Ab scooping up salmon in Alaska, or is he that Texas cowboy smiling in the old black-and-white photo?
Could he be the sailor surveying the South Pacific, or the one on leaky wooden raft, heading down the Neches River in hopes of floating from Diboll to Beaumont?
If he’s a Distinguished Regents Professor Emeritus, is he an expert on Elizabethan sonnets or the go-to-guy on poisonous snakes?
Maybe he is that rough-hewn man hacking through the brush and pounding out a footpath along Lanana Creek.
Of course, Francis Edward Abernethy is all of these, and more.
His many interests defy attempts to tag a single label on him.
To Texas academics, he’s the prolific editor and executive secretary of the Texas Folklore Society. Around Nacogdoches, he may be best known as The Man Who Built the Trail – that’s the Lanana Creek Trail.
He is quick to credit the dozens of people who served alongside him, including Archie McDonald, Carroll Schoenewolf and John Anderson. These men volunteered in 1986 to follow Ab into the woods and begin to separate the privet hedge, laurel, hackberry and assorted vines from the trail that surely lay beneath.
“In some places the privet was so thick we worked on our hands and knees,” said Abernethy, “cutting the first trail by pushing a chain saw ahead of us.” Most of the work was completed in those first years following the Texas Sesquicentennial, but Ab has never really stopped working on the trail. Just this year, he has added monument signs, benches and a water fountain to the area he has designated as Father Margil Park.
For his outstanding 20-plus years of community work in improving the creek and the trail, Abernethy has been chosen as the Nacogdoches County Chamber’s 2008 Citizen of the Year.
For Ab, hard work is just part of enjoying an adventure. He was born in Altus, Oklahoma in 1925, but grew up in the Texas Panhandle and in East Texas. Ab’s family was hard-hit by the Great Depression, and he shuttled from his grandfather’s ranch on the Washita River in dusty Hemphill County, to his mother’s family in Dallas and Palestine.
He was almost fated to live in Nacogdoches, but it took patience and time to find his place here. The ranch in West Texas was “high and lonesome” but it suited Ab’s curiousity about life, as he roamed the breaks with friends and his dogs, and learned Old Timey music like Gid Tanner and the Skillet Likkers from his records on his Granddad’s Victrola..
He lived in Palestine from 1934 to 1942. For Ab, these years combined one part Tom Sawyer with one part Thomas Edison. He crafted skate scooters, slingshots and kites, but also soaked up knowledge about paramecia, photography, arc lights and making gun powder. The last experiment explains how Ab burned down his parent’s garage. Ab became an expert hunter and collector, shooting squirrels, and archiving cat skulls, snake skins and hawk claws.
During his fifteenth summer, he toiled as a cowhand and fence builder on his uncle’s ranch in Hamilton. Ab moved from Palestine to Nacogdoches in 1942, but not willingly. As he puts it, “I had to leave the sophisticated good life in Palestine and move to the outback rurality of Nacogdoches, where I became the new kid on the block.”
Ab met Hazel Shelton that year. She was a sophomore, and he was the cool, good-looking new senior boy. “By the end of the year we were going together,” Hazel recalled. But the world was at war, and Ab and Hazel knew he’d be joining the Navy and leaving right after graduation. Ab’s biggest concern was that the war might end before his chance to jump into it.
He signed up for the officer’s training program, but got anxious, and purposely flunked out to go immediately to boot camp and become a sailor. He went through gunnery school and finally to sea in the U.S.S. Harkness, a wooden-hulled minesweeper converted to a survey ship. The crew’s assignment was to map the waters off Japan. Ab took part in the occupation of Japan, and was released from service in 1946. He returned, expecting Hazel to welcome her war hero back.
Instead, she was enrolled at SFA, enjoying her new college life and friends, acting in plays and attending classes. She had moved on. Ab brooded for a while, then hit the road. Nacogdoches was really no longer home, as his parents had moved to Baton Rouge.
In his words, he “bummed around” the country for four months, wandering to New Orleans, Tampa, New York, Chicago, Winnipeg, Indiana, Kansas and back across Texas. “I slept behind sign boards, in fire stations, flop houses and Salvation Armies,” he said. “I washed dishes for a week in DC, milked cows for two weeks in Indiana, and worked the wheat harvest until it ran out in Kansas. I met a host of wandering hobo vets on the road. I guess we were all looking for something – a place, maybe, or something of our old selves.”
While in Tampa, he was mugged, but the assailant found only a dollar in Ab’s wallet. The robber let him keep it. Ab returned briefly to Nacogdoches, but showing up in dirty ragged clothes at First Methodist Church did nothing to enamor him to Hazel. He made his way to work on a shrimp boat in Morgan City, Louisiana.
While snapping shrimp heads, it occurred to him that perhaps a better course for his life might be to enroll at SFA, using the GI bill. His rite of passage – which included 5,500 miles of hitchhiking – was over. He now had confidence that he could do anything. Housing was scarce in Nacogdoches, but Ab conspired with several friends to rent a four-room house on Starr Avenue. It soon became known as the Buzzard’s Roost. Dean of Men Bob Shelton forbade women from entering. That included his daughter, Hazel.
In the summer of 1947, Ab hitchhiked over 2,000 miles to Vancouver, hoping to get to the salmon boats in Prince William Sound. This passed Ab’s quality test of adventure, which is to ask, “Where would you be if you could be anywhere in this world?” If the answer is “Right here!” then the trip is worth it. Seining for 6-pound sockeye salmon was the plan. The politics of fishing intervened, and Ab found himself on a pirate’s mission, freeing salmon from long-line nets owned by corporate canneries, then selling the fish right back to the cannery.
It took a while for Hazel and Ab to reunite, but they did, and after five years of tumultuous courtship, they were married in 1948. After a year in Switzerland and a spell at LSU for a Master’s degree, Ab was sorely in need of a paying job. He and Hazel were parents now, as daughter Luanna was born in Baton Rouge. The Abernethys arrived dead broke in Woodville in 1951. Ab taught English at Kirby High and drove a school bus route. He began work on his PhD in Austin then transferred to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge in 1953.
He finished his doctorate in 1956, after summer jobs working as a biologist aide for Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries, and a brief stint as a lineman for Gulf States Utilities. That job allowed Ab enough practice with pole climbing hooks that he used the technique to climb trees to hunt deer until in his seventies. At Lamar State College of Technology in Beaumont, Ab taught English and folklore for nine years. One of his students was Janis Joplin.
After she left Lamar, Joplin would return to visit Ab, play his guitar and show him what she had learned lately. Ab met biologist Bob Mitchell, and began a lifelong interest in exploring (spelunking) in caves. In 1965, Ab, Hazel and family moved to Nacogdoches into an 1888 two-story home in the historic district, just south of Pilar Street on Lanana. Ab and Hazel still abide there, a few hundred yards from Lanana Creek.
The big home accommodated the growing Abernethy clan – which now included Robert, Sarah Elizabeth, Maggie and Ben. Ab formed an Old Timey string band with three other SFA professors. The East Texas String Ensemble was anything but classic, but they secured gigs across Texas, including the Texas Folklife Festival. At SFA, Ab taught English and folklore, as well as running the Texas Folklore Association. He’s a prolific writer, and has been honored for his academic achievements. The wanderlust has continued for Ab. In 1992 he visited Indonesia, where he delighted in getting up close and personal with orangutans. In 2007 he toured China with Jeff Abt and in 2008 he was calling on the Dalai Lama’s apartment in Tibet. With all these far-flung adventures, one would think Ab Abernethy would find it a bit mundane to be still cutting through the briars on the Lanana Creek Trail.
But the man with many interests has found his one obsession. And Nacogdoches has been the beneficiary of the Man Who Built the Trail. --- The Chamber will honor Dr. Abernethy at the 87th Annual Meeting and Membership Banquet on Tuesday, Sept. 30, at the Hotel Fredonia. The event begins at 6 p.m. with a raffle and social hour.
Dinner will be served at 7 p.m. An event registration form is posted on www.nacogdoches.org or contact the Chamber office, 560-5533, for tickets and table sponsorships. Contact Chamber Vice Chair Michelle Smith, 569-1947, to donate items for the raffle and online auction. Other award recipients will also be recognized at the event, including Small Business of the Year Shannons Pools, Large Business of the Year Elliott Electric Supply, Inc., and Medium Business of the Year Cotton Patch Café.