|The Texas Folklore Society's own F. E. "Ab" Abernethy (Secretary-Editor 1971-2004) was honored Tuesday night (9-30-08), by the Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce, as 2008 Citizen of the Year. Six hundred people came to witness the award ceremony and hear Dr. Abernethy's acceptance speech. The following write-up and photo were published in the Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel on Sunday, September 28, 2008.
Renaissance man tames the Lanana
Ab Abernethy named 2008 Citizen of the Year
By Bruce R. Partain
Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce
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? Is he the sailor surveying the South Pacific, or the one on a 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.
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 to 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,” Abernethy said, “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 added monument signs, benches and a water fountain to the area he designated “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 of Commerce 2008 Citizen of the Year.
For Ab, hard work is just part of enjoying an adventure. Born in 1925, in Altus, Okla., he 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. Fate would eventually lead him to 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 curiosity about life, as he roamed the breaks with friends and his dogs, and learned old-timey music like that of Gid Tanner and The Skillet Likkers from 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, sling-shots and kites, but also soaked up knowledge about paramecia, photography, arc lights and making gun powder. That last experiment explains how Ab burned down his parents’ garage. Ab became an expert hunter and collector, shooting squirrels and archiving cat skulls, snake skins and hawk claws. During his 15th 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 out-back 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 D.C., 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, La. 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 longline 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 Louisiana State University 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 Ph.D. in Austin then transferred in 1953 to LSU in Baton Rouge.
He finished his doctorate in 1956, after summer jobs working as a biologist’s 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 he was in his 70s.
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 recently learned.
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 Street. 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 Society. 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 2006 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.
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