William S. Abell Sr., 87, a Sun director

May 25, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

William S. Abell Sr., retired attorney, longtime director of A. S. Abell Co. and prominent Catholic layman, died Wednesday of a heart ailment at his Chevy Chase home. He was 87.

Mr. Abell, whose great-grandfather founded The Sun, took great pride in the newspaper that had been launched in 1837 by Arunah S. Abell and his partners, Azariah H. Simmons and William M. Swain.

Mr. Abell also had been vice chairman of the board and president of WMAR-TV in Baltimore and a member of the board of Landmark Publishing Co., publisher of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot newspaper.

Mr. Abell was 33 when he was elected in 1947 to the board of directors of A. S. Abell Co., owner and publisher of The Sun and The Evening Sun.

He was the first Abell to serve on the board since his father, Charles S. Abell, had resigned in 1910, after the Abell family lost control of the company for several years.

When he retired in 1984, Mr. Abell was vice chairman.

"Bill was the ideal director," said William F. Schmick Jr., former president of A. S. Abell Co. "While he was there, he was highly principled and a tremendous force in the operation of the newspapers, and that showed quite clearly in his decisions."

A man of medium build whose face was highlighted by glasses and a carefully trimmed mustache, he dressed in conservative suits.

Everyone called Mr. Abell "Bill." A friendly, modest, unprepossessing man, Mr. Abell was a familiar figure around the Sunpapers building and valued his friendships with reporters and editors.

"He realized that newspapers had both a social and public responsibility, and he took a great deal of pride in how The Sun met that responsibility," said Joseph R. L. Sterne, retired editorial page editor of The Sun. "He was never intrusive and never tried to impose his views and respected the independence of a newspaperman."

"He read the paper and had tear sheets of editorials sent to him. He was always keenly interested in the work of the paper's reporters and editors," said a son, W. Shepherdson Abell, a Washington lawyer and the last Abell on the board when the paper was sold to Times-Mirror Co. in 1986.

He was a member of the search committee that in 1981 brought in Reg Murphy, the company's last president during Mr. Abell's tenure and publisher of the newspapers. "He was the perfect gentleman in my experience. He was courtly and urbane and witty," Mr. Murphy said several years ago.

"Shep" Abell, who lives in Chevy Chase, said his father was "particularly proud of the fact that one historian said that of all the famous families that founded very successful businesses in the 1800s, this was one of the few that had no imputation of false dealing or oppression."

A devout Roman Catholic, Mr. Abell attended Mass daily at Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church in Washington, where he had been a member for 60 years.

He also was active in many Catholic affairs and activities, including the Washington archdiocesan liturgical committee, the John Carroll Society and the Knights of Malta. He was a member of the board of trustees and benefactor of Catholic University of America. He had also served on the board and was a benefactor of Georgetown Preparatory School, his alma mater, and St. Gertrude's School.

During the 1960s, when a trend toward secularization reached Catholic colleges and universities, Mr. Abell wrote to Clarence Walton, president of Catholic University, extolling the need for "a genuinely Catholic education at the genuine Catholic institution."

"His words were prophetic and, I believe, he helped position CUA, as a trustee, to continue to fulfill that demand to the present day," Monsignor David M. O'Connell, C.M., president of the university, said yesterday.

"When I think of Bill Abell, I see a truly Christian gentleman who was extremely humble from A to Z," said Vincent Burke, retired president of Riggs Bank in Washington.

Mr. Abell was the founder of the Charles S. Abell Foundation, which serves the needy and hungry in Washington.

Mr. Abell was born in Ottumwa, Iowa, where his father worked for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.

His father moved to Washington in the early 1920s, when he became business manager of the Washington Post.

Mr. Abell graduated from Georgetown Prep in 1932. He received a bachelor's degree from Georgetown University in 1936 and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1939. He received a master's degree in law from Georgetown in 1941.

He became an attorney in 1941 for the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, headed by Harry S. Truman, then a senator from Missouri.

During World War II, he served in the Navy at the Bureau of Ships in Washington. He was discharged in 1946 and joined the firm Nashe, Ahearn & Abell, where he practiced law until retiring in 1983.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church, 6001 Western Ave. N.W. in Washington.

He is survived by his wife of 64 years, the former Patricia O'Callaghan; four other sons, Anthony F. Abell of Bethesda, Christopher S. Abell of Chevy Chase, Kevin O'C. Abell of Baltimore and Gregory T. Abell of Austin, Texas; two daughters, Patricia E. Abell of Chevy Chase and Elaine Abell Nurmi of Washington; a sister, Margaret Abell Powell of Chevy Chase; and 18 grandchildren.

Sun staff reporters Jacques Kelly and Carl Schoettler contributed to this article.

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