Bob Abernethy died on May 2, 2021, at the age of 93. He was a remarkable man who enriched many lives.
My path crossed his before his crossed mine. Like millions of others, I watched him on NBC News, where he appeared almost nightly to deliver news from Washington, London, and, beginning in 1989, from Moscow. He was NBC’s chief Russian correspondent when Gorbachev became the Russian leader, when the Berlin Wall came down, and when the Soviet Union came to an end.
During his five years in Moscow, Bob witnessed some of the most momentous changes of modern times. He then “retired” from NBC, but only to begin a new stage in an extraordinary career.
Bob was a man of faith. His grandfather was the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., which Bob attended as a boy. In 1984, more than thirty years after graduating from Princeton, he left NBC to attend Yale Divinity School. I don’t know whether Bob was thinking of becoming a minister —we never discussed it—but a year later, he went back to broadcasting, first in Washington and later to take up his post in Moscow.
Bob’s path first crossed mine around 1990, when he bought a house near us on Gilmore Pond in Jaffrey. I remember that first meeting, down by the water; and I remember our many hours together with gratitude and pleasure.
At first, he would arrive from Moscow during the summer, and we would sit and talk. Soon we developed a regular routine that continued for nearly thirty years. One of us would provide doughnuts or muffins, and we had what can best be called a single, open-ended conversation about whatever was on our minds. We talked about life on the pond, local goings-on, the state of the world, and sometime about feelings. At various times, we wondered aloud what we could do to help make the world a better place.
One day, Bob told me he had an idea for a television show that would deal with religion and ethics. This “second career” would not be on the pulpit in the usual sense, but a ministry of a different kind. All Bob needed was a sponsor, and when the Eli Lilly Endowment agreed to fill that role, the PBS program called “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” was born, with Bob at the helm as executive editor and host.
From 1997 to 2017, Bob and his formidable team covered faith and religion in all its forms—“a news program, not preaching”—as Bob put it, producing 1017 shows on 250 Public Broadcasting stations. They travelled the world, from war-torn Cambodia to crime-ridden Camden, New Jersey, always finding reasons for hope in the midst of despair. Among those interviewed were Jimmy Carter, the Dalai Lama, Billy Graham, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Milford, Michigan poet-undertaker Thomas Lynch.
The programs are timeless, and in case you missed them, they are preserved on the Internet. You can also pick up Bob’s 2007 book, “The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World.”
Three years ago, the Pianist and I attended Bob’s 90th birthday party at his daughter Jane’s home in Brunswick, Maine. It was a wonderful event, complete with a cappella music provided by the Bowdoin College “Meddiebempsters” and a video tribute from Bob’s NBC colleague, Tom Brokaw.
Bob was a man of the world, and of Jaffrey. When our Gilmore Pond neighbor, lifelong Jaffrey resident Bill Royce, died in 2016, Bob mourned the loss of a personal friend. “He knew so much about this area,” Bob told me. “How will we ever replace him?”
And now Bob, who knew so much about the world and about what matters in life, is gone. He made the world a better place, and we will never replace him.