Best known for his conservation work leading The Trustees of Reservations, Gordon Abbott Jr. was also a devoted sailor since boyhood and a former newspaper editor who lived in Manchester-by-the-Sea, a town he loved so much he wrote two books about its history.
“I continue to be deeply grateful . . . that I turned out to be a ‘generalist’ and that I still find excitement around every corner,” he wrote for the 45th anniversary report of his Harvard class in 1995, a decade into a retirement that was hardly idle.
After the trustees, he was a visiting scholar at Harvard and wrote books, but wrote in 2010 that he reluctantly decided to give up downhill skiing after pursuing the sport for 75 years, due to knee surgery.
“He followed his passions,” said his son, Christopher. “He was a voracious reader and researcher and had a great understanding of the big world, far beyond Cape Ann.”
Mr. Abbott, who spent nearly 18 years as director of the trustees, a nonprofit that manages nearly 25,000 acres of protected land in and around Massachusetts, died of complications of prostate cancer on April 17 in Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers. He was 85 and lived in Manchester for most of his life.
Taking over as leader of the Trustees in 1966, Mr. Abbott professionalized an organization of mostly volunteers, said his successor, Frederic Winthrop.
“Gordon raised the standard of stewardship and management to a new level,” he said. “He had a passion for the job and a lot of personal charisma, and he was able to get the best out of people.’’
The organization was a natural fit for Mr. Abbott. “He loved the outdoors, and he loved the Trustees,” Winthrop said.
Mr. Abbott also wanted to preserve memories of institutions he loved. Last year, he published “For the Purpose of Encouraging Yachting,” a history of the Manchester Yacht Club, where he had been a member since childhood and served as commodore.
He wrote two other books: “Saving Special Places: A Centennial History of the Trustees of Reservations, Pioneer of the Land Trust Movement,” and “Jeffrey’s Creek: A Story of People, Places and Events in the Town that Came to Be Known as Manchester-by-the-Sea.”
An only child, he was born in Boston. He graduated from the Brooks School in North Andover early to enlist in the US Navy at 17. He served in the Pacific as quartermaster on the USS Quick, a destroyer minesweeper, near the end of World War II. The experience sparked a love of American history, said his son, who lives in New York City and Manchester. Until his death, Mr. Abbott read three to five books a week, mainly on naval and military history, his son said.
After the war he went to Harvard College, where he played hockey, skied, and rowed crew.
Sailing was a hallmark of his life, said George Lodge, a journalist and politician who met Mr. Abbott at the Manchester Yacht Club when both were 6. They attended Harvard together and remained lifelong friends.
“He was a great sailor,” said Lodge, who often raced with his friend.
At 20, they visited Greece with Lodge’s father, US Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., during that country’s civil war.
The friends tried to beat a record for scaling the wall around the Acropolis of Athens when “out from behind this big boulder came a face with a big smile and a big rifle,” Lodge said. “He was a bored guerrilla looking for excitement, and he found it in us. We were both spread-eagled on the wall when he started shooting. But he mustn’t have wanted to hit us, because he could have and he didn’t.”
Mr. Abbott graduated from Harvard in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in social anthropology and spent a year pursuing a master’s in business administration at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania before deciding that was not the right fit.
Until becoming director of the Trustees, Mr. Abbott worked at the Brooks School; was an advertising copywriter for the firm Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn; and was an editor and reporter for The Gloucester Daily Times and the now-defunct Beverly Evening Times.
In a written remembrance, Mr. Abbott’s daughter Victoria Abbott Riccardi of Newton said he was a “reporter at heart,” and “enjoyed nothing more than hearing someone’s story.”
In 1952, Mr. Abbott met Katharine Oliver Stanley-Brown on the banks of the Charles River, where both were watching the Adams Cup crew race. They married in 1955.
The Trustees job was perfect for an outdoorsy father of four who, his son said, might travel to Western Massachusetts to visit a property “and just happen to have his cross-country skis in the back of the car.”
“He loved the job, and we would all tag along with him,” his son said.
As head of the Trustees, Mr. Abbott represented “the human side of conservation,” said Barbara Erickson, the group’s president.
“He steered us to some of our most significant properties,” she said, including Wasque in Martha’s Vineyard and the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge in Nantucket.
“With those properties and many others, he really put the Trustees on the map,” she said.
A founder and first treasurer of the Land Trust Alliance in Washington, D.C., Mr. Abbott also helped to create and run the Center for Rural Massachusetts, based at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
After retiring, Mr. Abbott spent a year as visiting scholar and adjunct professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the landscape architecture department. He also taught at UMass Amherst. At 60, he went back to school and graduated in 1990 with a master’s in American studies from UMass Boston.
The trustees honored Mr. Abbott with its Charles Eliot Award for his service and dedication to the environment.
A service has been held for Mr. Abbott, who in addition to his wife, son, and daughter, leaves two other daughters, Katrina Schermerhorn Abbott of Cambridge and Alexandra Garfield Abbott of Boston; and five grandchildren.
With enthusiasm that never waned, Mr. Abbott wrote for a Harvard class report in 2010 that “the weeks seem to pass faster each year, which I must say dismays me. But I stick with the old adage: it must be ’cause we’re having fun!”