- How does one sum up the life of someone like Francis E. “Ab” Abernethy? Trailblazer, professor of literature, spelunker, author, musician, veteran and so much more. Nacogdoches has lost a legend.
In the early morning hours Saturday, Ab passed away in the home where he raised his five children. He was 89 years old. Just days before, more than 400 people crowded into Banita Creek Hall to honor his work creating the Lanana and Banita Creek trails. Ab spoke with his usual candor and humor, saying his trailblazing did not come without difficulty. But Ab wasn’t a person who would shy away from a daunting task.
In a 2013 interview, Ab talked about his secret to life. “It’s curiosity,” he said, “and I don’t have many fears.”
Ab’s story begins in 1925 on a ranch where he spent the early years of the Great Depression in the Texas Panhandle. By 1934, he and his family made their way to Palestine and the Piney Woods. No matter where Ab later traveled in life, he would always come back to his home — East Texas.
It was at Nacogdoches High School where he met Hazel Shelton, the girl who was to become his beloved wife. He spent his days swimming and fishing on the Angelina River and hunting in the bottomlands. These childhood memories were likely the fuel for some of his later work. He recently wrote a book, “Let the River Run Wild!” about the Neches River. He used photographs and facts to express the importance of preserving the river and its natural habitat.
On the road
Abernethy graduated from Nacogdoches High School in 1943, joined the Navy two weeks later and served in the South Pacific during WWII. Like many veterans, he came home in 1946 after the war, wondering what to do with himself. So he hit the road as a hitchhiker.
In his home are two thick volumes containing Ab’s personal memoirs. One chapter, aptly named “On the Road,” chronicles his hitchhiking days. Later, when he read the Jack Kerouac classic by the same name, he realized he might have been in the back of a flatbed truck with the famous author, tearing out of New Orleans with a bottle of whiskey. From Baton Rouge to Florida, up to New York, across to Winnipeg, and then down through Kansas and back to Texas, Ab journeyed around the country with nothing but a razor, a small mirror, a toothbrush and some fishing line.
The next summer, Ab hitchhiked 7,000 miles up the western portion of the nation to Alaska, where he worked as a salmon fisherman on the 29-foot Pride of Cordova. The adventure of that summer was getting caught in a war between the old sourdough fishermen and the big fish companies out of Seattle and Tacoma. The big companies set out huge salmon traps that not only denied the Alaskans good salmon hauls, but drastically lowered the price of fish. The result was a battle. Instead of dynamiting the traps, as was the usual practice among the fishermen, Abernethy’s crew raided the traps and then sold the fish back to the traps’ owners. The crew of the Pride of Cordova were hailed as heroes in Prince William Sound. They were called “fish pirates” in Seattle.
Abernethy received his degree from Stephen F. Austin State Teachers College in 1949, then went on to the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland, and Louisiana State University for a master’s. He taught from 1951 to 1953 at Woodville High School, then returned to LSU for his Ph.D. in Renaissance literature. At that time, Ab and Hazel had three children, and to get by, he worked for Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries as a field biologist and with Gulf States Utilities on a line crew.
It was also at Lamar where Ab taught folk music to Janis Joplin.
One man and a machete
Today, people walk their dogs and jog along the Lanana and Banita Creek trails, enjoying the sound of the water flowing and birds singing. But just a few decades ago, those trails did not exist. They were the result of one man and a machete.
It was 1986 when Ab decided to start blazing a trail. He had some help along the way, but oftentimes could be found by himself, hacking away at underbrush and planning his route. That project expanded over the years to include the Banita Creek Trail, and now, what will become a circular trail system, several miles long, around the heart of Nacogdoches.
Another one of Abernethy’s passions from his early youth was music. From 1968 to 2008, Ab played the stand-up bass and sang in the East Texas String Ensemble. For 27 years, the Strings played San Antonio’s Texas Folklife Festival, which Abernethy helped found. Later, he sang with other groups, including Steve Cox and Joe Nerren on Friday nights at Hotel Fredonia.
Ab wondered often about the vastness of the universe, saying once that he thought there might be “a bigger ball” out there. “We have our own measurements in inches and feet and yards, but that doesn’t mean a thing when you’re looking at the earth, standing on the moon,” he said. “We’ve got one life — this is what we’ve got, and live it. All the experiences and these horrible love affairs that tear us in two — we were living then, the intensity of it made it so we won’t forget a second of it.
“And then the times we were so scared we were messing our pants — by God, we were flat alive then! And then the times when we made love to heaven, they’re not forgotten either. Anything, it’s life. This is what you’ve got, by God, if you don’t live it.”
Ab said people never regret the things they do in life, but the things they didn’t do. A few days ago, he told his daughter, Luanna Abernethy Duffin, that he had filled his bucket list. He had done all the things he wanted to do, had seen all that he wanted to see, and was ready to go.