CATEGORY: Lafayette County
HED: Former New York ad exec adopts South as home
By Errol Castens
OXFORD – A recent morning found “retired” New York ad man David Abbey drinking in the atmosphere – and the coffee – of a popular Oxford coffee shop, reflecting on what attracted him to the town.
“That’s a very big part of it,” he said, pointing to the 70-degree sunshine splashing on nearby tables. “The key word is curiosity, though.”
From North to South
Oxford’s comparatively slow pace and warmth – both climatological and social – are still a new experience for Abbey. He had grown up in blustery Chicago, and a career selling television advertising took him to sometimes-cold-shouldered New York for much of his adult life. Several years as a travel planner took him to resorts and cities all over the globe.
“Other than Anchorage, Alaska, I’ve been in every major and minor TV market in America,” Abbey said.
It was his admiration for several key clients that piqued his curiosity about this region.
“There were some great industry leaders in the sixties and seventies from the South,” he recalled, naming Memphis, New Orleans, Charlotte and Raleigh as recipients of their civic-mindedness. “It was through these fine gentlemen that I got to know the South.”
Early exposure to power
Abbey’s father was assistant managing editor for the Chicago Tribune. Every evening at precisely 6 o’clock, he’d go to a small Greek restaurant nearby and have a single martini and return to work. Late on Friday nights he’d take his sons to the same place.
Abbey still recalls his father’s instructions for dining there: “Don’t talk; just listen.” Just a table away, Mayor Richard Daley would be dining with other city officials, the governor, U.S. senators and other power brokers, hammering out the Machine’s workings. Always there was an extra, unidentified party – presumably the Mafia representative.
“It’s where Chicago changed hands for many years,” Abbey recounted.
So treasured was his father’s 45-year patronage at the restaurant that years later any member of the family could ask for “Mr. Abbey’s table” and be seated immediately – even if other patrons had to be moved.
David Abbey said his father was responsible for the infamous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline in November 1948. Not simply the stupid mistake most assume, publishing’s most famous error was spawned by pressure to beat the upstart Chicago Sun-Times to the street, poor nationwide polling techniques and a desire on the part of Tribune leaders for Dewey to win the election.
Most copies were retrieved in the early morning after it became apparent that Truman might win after all. For years, Abbey’s father kept some 400 copies of the edition in his attic.
“I was about to leave for his retirement party (in 1964) when I saw a copy of it in a store window in downtown Manhattan,” Abbey said. The price was $350.
At the party in Chicago a few hours later, Abbey asked his father what had happened to his “Dewey Defeats Truman” papers and learned that they’d been donated to the Salvation Army – the day before – to be shredded and recycled.
“‘Why do you ask?’ he asked me,” Abbey said. “‘Oh, no particular reason,’ I said. I never told him.”
Challenging life to its face
The intellectual toughness Abbey saw growing up drove him to seek challenges on his own.
After decades with one of the nation’s biggest broadcast sales companies, he cashed in his stock and began a new business in incentive travel, approaching the same TV station owners he’d called on for years with ways to reward their best advertisers. He traveled most of the time, planning group trips to places as far-flung as Monte Carlo, Moscow and Hong Kong.
“I flew all the way around the world for one dinner,” Abbey said. “That’s when I said, ‘Wait a minute.’” That’s also when retirement began looking attractive.
At the age of 50, Abbey took up downhill skiing and soon became proficient enough to take on all but the most dangerous ski runs.
At 60, he took flying lessons but, in the physical exam required to solo, learned that he had a heart murmur. The resulting surgery options – which went just fine, thank you – made him the oldest living American man to have two heart valves transplanted from cadavers.
Such a lifetime of seeking and facing new challenges made the complete uprooting that would be daunting for many just another test for Abbey.
After deciding to move southward, Abbey relied on stories he’d heard from his ex-wife’s relatives about life in Lafayette County.
“This was a part of the country I’d never lived in before,” he said. “I just had an interest in experiencing a small town.”
The morning after Patricia Lamar had been elected as mayor, Abbey was walking around the square when a television reporter asked him to congratulate the mayor-elect on camera on behalf of all the city’s citizens.
He complied gallantly with the request and then told Lamar he was probably the city’s newest resident, having arrived only the previous night.
“That got her attention and got me involved in politics,” he recalled.
The working retired
Abbey’s first civic involvement came in an appointment to the Airport Authority Feasibility Committee, which led to a slot in the Leadership Lafayette class.
“That’s a perfect way to learn the community,” Abbey said. His team’s Leadership Lafayette project soon became Oxford’s “Vision 2020″ long-range planning initiative.
“David’s adjusted well to what must have been a culture shock,” said Leadership Lafayette classmate John Fullenwider. “From his first day down here, he’s jumped into community involvement.”
Eager to share his new hometown with others, Abbey has also served as an ambassador in the Economic Development Commission’s retiree attraction program. He recently hosted a German couple seeking a retirement home in Mississippi, a place they had never before visited.
“What attracted them to Oxford was the prettiness, the cultural atmosphere and then the university,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of (retirees) who just want a little garden in the back yard.”
Certainly David Abbey isn’t one to garden away his life. To a new hometown, he has added new friends, new civic responsibilities and even a new career. The retirement ambassador work led to his being asked to manage the “Red Coat” patient assistant program at the local hospital.
“So much for retirement,” he said wryly.