BY BILL BRUNS
Circling the News Advisor
Veteran television journalist Robert Abernethy, who died on May 2 at age 93, was an active community leader in Pacific Palisades when he lived here between 1966 and 1977.
After working for 13 years for NBC in London and Washington, D.C., Abernethy moved to Los Angeles in 1966 to anchor the evening newscasts at KNBC until 1970. He then worked as an interviewer, special correspondent and commentator on the newscasts until he moved back to Washington.
Approached by the Palisades Chamber of Commerce, Abernethy agreed to serve as the town’s honorary mayor from 1971 to 1973, succeeding actor Peter Graves. He certainly took the position seriously.
In 1972, he joined the campaign to raise more than $70,000 for the purchase, landscaping and maintenance of the Village Green, which replaced an eyesore gas station on the triangle formed by Sunset, Swarthmore and Antioch. Abernethy served as secretary of the founding committee and helped them raise over $10,000 in 1975 to landscape an additional 3,000 square feet of land made possible by closing one lane of Antioch.
Also in 1972, Abernethy was instrumental in forming the Community Council with Bob McMillin and other local leaders.
“At that time a lot of organizations were doing different things, and some of them were pulling against each other,” McMillin told the Palisadian-Post in 2006. “I got together with Bob Abernethy and we agreed that it might be a good idea to bring all the organizations together to form one voice that could talk to the city about our needs.”
Abernethy served as the first president of the Community Council, and in 1973, the Post named him Citizen of the Year in recognition of his leadership skills.
Locals remember that he lived on Via de la Paz and later on Chautauqua with his first wife, Jean Montgomery, and their daughter, Jane. They also had a nice dog named Biscuit.
When Abernethy (a Princeton graduate) transferred back to Washington in 1977, he reported for the “Today Show” and appeared alongside former KNBC colleague Tom Brokaw.
In 1980, Abernethy’s wife died, and four years later, he took a leave from NBC to study briefly at Yale Divinity School.
“I never intended to get my degree, but I was always interested in those parts of life,” he told Post Staff Writer Jacki Horwitz in 1997. “I was single at the time and it was a wonderful experience.”
Abernethy married Marie Cheremeteff Grove in 1985 and they had a daughter, Elizabeth. He returned to the NBC bureau in Washington and, in 1988, he became chief correspondent in the network’s Moscow bureau.
Working in Russia until 1994, Abernethy witnessed the first stirrings of Gorbachev’s glasnost and the break-up of the Soviet Union as the country lurched toward democracy.
“Gorbachev was a garrulous, very forceful and serious man,” Abernethy told Horwitz. “I think he was a great hero who led the way to ending 40 years of Cold War.”
“It was a thrilling time to be a newsman,” Abernethy continued. “But after 1991, when Yeltsin succeeded Gorbachev, life was sad for our Russian friends. Life became worse and all the hopes we had were waning because there were no contract or commercial laws in place. It turned into a free-for-all, and those who survived were the most corrupt. Everyone else was in a perpetual state of uncertainty about what would happen next. It’s still painful, such a tragedy.”
After Abernethy retired from NBC in 1994, he received two grants totaling $5 million and was able to persuade the New York PBS station to produce “Religion & Ethics News Weekly,” a half-hour nonsectarian series that he hosted and presided over as executive editor beginning in 1997.
Within 10 years of its launch, the show aired on 250 public stations nationwide and won some 200 industry awards.
Collaborating with journalist William Bole, Abernethy edited “The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World,” an anthology of interview transcripts from the PBS program.
In the introduction to the book (published in 2007), Abernethy wrote: “Nothing I have done has been as personally satisfying as founding and working on” the program. “The main reason for that is the many opportunities the show provides for sitting down with the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu — extraordinary men and women who speak as naturally about their faith and doubt and spiritual practices as they do about the weather.”
The program ended in February 2017 after a nearly 20-year run, when Abernethy was 89. He died in Brunswick, Maine, from Alzheimer’s dementia.
He is survived by his wife Marie, his daughters Jane and Elizabeth and four children from Marie’s first marriage. His family asks that donations in his memory be made to The Gathering Place, 5 Tenney Way in Brunswick. This facility was founded in Brunswick in 2010 to give daytime shelter, friendship and hope to the materially poor or homeless.
Back in 1997, when Abernethy was asked if he missed Pacific Palisades, he responded, “I’ll say! What drew me there in the first place was the sense of community, the strong sense of place. I made a lot of friends there and I miss them.”