When I heard the sad news that Dr. Anthony S. “Tony” Abbott died on October 3, 2020, I flashed back to the first time I heard Tony read his poems aloud. His first poetry collection, The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat, had just been published, and he read a number of the poems from this collection at an event sponsored by Poplar Street Books, a charming used bookstore that was located in a historic home in the heart of Charlotte’s Fourth Ward. Rosemary Latimore, the owner of the store, was a great lover of poetry, and she often held poetry readings at her bookstore. I went to Tony’s reading, and I remember being moved by the deep emotions that run through his poetry. For example, in his poem about the girl in the yellow raincoat, Tony helped those of us in attendance better understand the continuing sense of loss that a parent experiences following the death of a child. I also remember the sound of his voice as he read aloud. There was a warmth to his voice that helped him establish a rapport with those of us in the audience. Although that poetry reading took place more than thirty years ago, I remember it very well. I can still see Tony reading his poems, surrounded by stacks of old books. I recall that at the end of his reading, he repeatedly thanked Rosemary for organizing the event, and he thanked those of us in the audience for coming out to hear him. As I see it, Tony didn’t just share his poems with us that afternoon. He shared part of his essence. His passion for poetry, his desire to connect with readers, his graciousness, and his commitment to the larger literary community all came through during his reading.
I am just one of many people whose lives are richer because they knew Tony or read his work. During his thirty-seven years as an English professor at Davidson College, he taught countless students about literature and drama. Even after he retired in 2001, he continued to teach occasional courses. As one of the founders of the Davidson Community Players, he helped bring the joy of theater to the lives of many residents of Davidson and beyond. Through his many books, he reached readers, most of whom never met him in person. Over the course of his long career, he wrote seven books of poetry, two novels, and several works of literary criticism. He participated in various writers’ groups and organizations in the Charlotte area, and he could always be counted on to lead writing workshops.
For the purposes of this blog post, I contacted three people who knew Tony well and asked them to provide me with more information about Tony’s many and varied contributions to Charlotte’s community of readers and writers. One of these people is Ann Wicker, who was one of Tony’s students at Davidson College in the 1970s and who went on to become one of his friends. Another is Amy Rogers, who was the publisher of Tony’s first novel, Leaving Maggie Hope. The third is Leslie Rindoks, who Tony sought out as his designer many times, over several decades.
Here is what Ann Wicker sent to me:
Through his service in so many organizations and in his personal life, Dr. Tony Abbott was a bridge builder and one of his many gifts was bringing writers and readers together. His readings were entertaining and his classes inspirational. Further, he had a gift for bringing individuals together—if you were a friend of Tony, you had a vast network of friends you just hadn’t met yet.
While Tony was active in literary endeavors across the state and beyond, he spent a lot of time both before and after his 2001 retirement from Davidson College teaching classes for the Charlotte community. His classes through Queens University were always full, and he taught many classes and workshops for various groups in Charlotte and the region.
For many years he was active in the Charlotte Writers Club, serving as the organization’s president as well as several terms on their board. The Charlotte Center for Literary Arts wrote in their newsletter that Tony was “a supporter, faculty member, and friend of Charlotte Lit from our inception” in 2015.
Beyond Charlotte, Tony served as president of the North Carolina Writers’ network from 1990-1992. He received the North Carolina Award for Literature in 2015 and in 2020 entered the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. He served multiple terms on the boards of the North Carolina Writers’ Network and the North Carolina Poetry Society.
In 2008, Tony received the Irene Blair Honeycutt Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Literary Arts from Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte. He was twice honored by the NC Poetry Society in the Brockman-Campbell Competition: in 2012 as co-winner for If Words Could Save Us and in 2014, an honorable mention for The Angel Dialogues.
Here is what Amy Rogers sent to me:
One of the best things about being a publisher is saying yes to writers who most often hear the word no when they submit their work. Saying yes to Tony Abbott’s novel was easy.
So when I heard the sad news that Tony had died, I did what book-lovers do: I went seeking solace from my bookshelf and pulled down my copy of Leaving Maggie Hope. It’s an elegant, coming-of-age story of a boy who struggles to develop self-reliance in a world that often defies understanding.
I remembered back to when I first sat down with Tony’s manuscript; before then, I’d only been familiar with Tony’s work as a masterful poet.
As part of the publishing team at Novello Press, I evaluated hundreds of submissions each year. We’d all seen the sad truth: Even skilled wordsmiths often lack the ability to sustain a long-form narrative over the hundreds of pages that comprise a novel.
But this, this: Expansive and somehow tight, lyrical and yet muscular, Leaving Maggie Hope was a treasure. We not only added it to our roster of published books, we named it a Novello Literary Award winner.
That was back in 2003 and so much has changed since then. I didn’t get to know Tony as a beloved professor who shaped the creative minds of so many students. I can’t imagine the loss to his beloved Davidson community. But I have a keepsake of his legacy on my shelf, along with the memory of the joy of saying yes.
Here is what Leslie Rindoks sent to me:
Thirty years ago, Tony Abbott was directing Davidson Community Players’ production of Inherit the Wind and needed a set designer. New to North Carolina, I was a freelance designer with a theatre degree and little else. That play was the first of our collaborations, some theatre-based, but many more book-related, all of which enriched my life—as his neighbor, a designer, an editor, and ultimately as a writer myself.
I designed the cover of his first book, The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat (St. Andrews Press, 1989). Later, I designed the first edition of his autobiographical novel, Leaving Maggie Hope (Novello Festival Press, 2003), and as the book became a perennial favorite, I published, with Lorimer Press, the subsequent second edition and many reprints thereafter. Lorimer went on to publish collections of Tony’s poetry: New and Selected, If Words Could Save Us, and Angel Dialogues, all to great acclaim.
Tony delighted in collaboration, especially when sharing poetry with new audiences. He read poems accompanied by Baroque cello; he stepped into the recording studio so a cd could accompany If Words Could Save Us; he enlisted an artist to depict Gracie, the bridge-playing, Girl Scout cookie-selling, chandelier-swinging angel in Angel Dialogues; then, while promoting the book, he paired with various readers across the state to give Gracie a voice.
In “Blood Talk” he wrote, “I got nothing but goddam words working for me,” but goddam, what he did with them! As N.C. poet laureate Joseph Bathanti said, Tony refused “to flinch or shy away from his spiritual preoccupation intrigues” and he mined with “profundity and lyric intensity that sacred vein—with an imaginative finesse and sense of humor that is at once mystical and accessible.”
Tony’s belief in the power of words—if words could save us (and they can, my darling)—was in full force when he served as volume editor for What Writers Do, a retrospective of Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series (Lorimer Press, 2011). When he reached out to writers such as Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins, and Ron Rash, they delivered: poems, essays, stories, all which, as Tony said, “celebrate life and language and hope … making us want to be the human beings we were intended to be.” The very definition of Tony’s lifelong mission.
How fitting Tony should leave us now. The leaves on his favorite trees, those sugar maples, demand our attention before they loosen their hold and drift away.
Blood red of late October in the South,
and from the cemetery to the college campus
on the hill, the leaves bathe my eyes. I
turn each corner into dazzling surprise.
As Ann, Amy, and Leslie make clear in their statements, Tony was more than a gifted writer. He always valued friendship and community, and he took seriously his role as a teacher and mentor to the many writers he nurtured and supported over the course of his long and productive life. He will be missed, but through his books, he will continue to play a role in Storied Charlotte for years to come.