Gene Abbott, renaissance man

12/09/2010

“You’ve probably seen the advertising campaign ‘the most interesting man in the world.’ Well, Gene was the most interesting man in the world,” said Luke McKann about his late friend Eugene “Gene” Abbott Jr., who passed away from aggressive brain cancer on November 24. “He was a brilliant teacher at every single one of Marin’s high schools, he spoke Chinese, he surfed and played the guitar, he repaired cars and raced motorcycles. He was a very special man.”

Gene was born on September 14, 1948 to Barbara and Eugene Abbott Sr., who were third-generation San Franciscans. Shortly after Gene was born, Eugene Sr., a life insurance salesman, needed more work to support a growing family. The Abbotts packed up and moved to a newly developed community outside Los Angeles called Van Nuys. Gene would later remark that Van Nuys was nothing but tumbleweeds and open fields.

When Gene’s family moved to Novato, he discovered that he had an unlikely affinity for mechanics. He was a natural grease monkey, and was soon on par with his high school auto shop teacher. Eugene Sr. and Barbara were upset to hear Gene rumbling home on his first motorcycle, and were horrified at the endless succession of rusty, broken cars that Gene took home to repair in the front yard and eventually sell. Eugene Sr. finally forbade him from parking his newly acquired jalopies in front of the family home, lest they reduce property values.

Gene had a mean wild streak, and began drag racing motorcycles. “He loved motorcycles,” said Gene’s wife, Mary. “He had a BMW and a Honda, but his true love was for the English motorcycle—BSA, Triumph and Norton.”

Gene was also a fierce athlete, and became the top tennis player at his school. His small frame, hairy body and blond head earned him the nickname “The White Ape” on the courts. 

He was a talented rider, eventually competing at the renowned Carlsbad Raceway. He never pursued professional racing, but until several years ago Gene could outride anyone in West Marin. “We’d go up the hill and have coasting races. You turn the motor off and coast down the hill as fast as you can,” said his friend and former business partner Buck Meyer. “He won every time. I never beat him.”

Of course, beating Buck was a habit. “We used to play chess a lot. Even after the doctors took part of his brain out, he still beat me. That kind of bums me out,” Buck said.

While Gene was saving money for college by restoring old cars, he was also teaching repair skills to his friends and taking them to Bolinas Beach to teach them how to surf. “One of his rules was if you wanted to come out to the beach, you had to bring a girl along,” said his friend Dan Zaich. “He created this big network of friends on the beach, and really ran a surf and car club.”
Gene put himself through California State University, Long Beach, where he majored in Chinese philosophy. Laozi’s Tao Te Ching and the works of the Taoist and Confucian masters greatly intrigued Gene. He even learned to speak Mandarin. “Gene was the penultimate renaissance man,” Mary said. “He was all over the map in terms of interests and things that he pursued. That’s what was so amazing about Gene—what a diverse person he was. He was a student of Chinese philosophy and also knew every detail about every car model. ”

Gene was intelligent enough to save enough money to make college a thoroughly pleasant experience. “He just had a motorcycle that cost just two bucks to fill it up. It didn’t matter if it broke down, because he could fix it,” said his daughter Rosalie.

After college, Gene started working at the Bolinas Garage with his best friend Buck. On a lark, Gene applied for a substitute position teaching motorcycle repair at Novato High School. “He took a contract for 40 days, and it turned out to be 40 years,” Luke said. Gene was an excellent teacher, and eventually taught at every single high school in the county. “There are thousands of young people whose lives have been changed for the better for having Gene as a teacher and mentor.”

Gene specialized in young people who struggled in school, or were considered “bad kids.” “He would teach the toughest kids. Kids who didn’t speak English, were in trouble or couldn’t read well,” Mary said.

His strict but compassionate teaching style and hands-on curriculum appealed to many of these students. “Until high school I was having trouble in my life and school was not my high point. Gene’s teaching wasn’t only about cars. He’d weave in life lessons and philosophy on how to succeed in life as well,” said his former student and friend Colin Jackson, who is now a fire captain in Tiburon. “He gave a different path for someone like me. I attribute my time with him as the only reason I finished high school.”

Gene switched from teaching small engine repair to automotive technology, and eventually progressed to school administration and teacher education. He was a renowned teacher trainer at the University of California Extension. Later, as a school administrator, Gene developed and implemented new programs, including a medical assistance program, office technology classes and other alternative education opportunities.

He saved his money and bought the Stinson Beach Chevron station from Dick Fischer in 1979. “It was a hub. It was such a scene he had at that gas station,” Mary said. “It was this combination of regulars.” Gene and Buck were the nucleus of the group, along with Ron Sweet, Michael Rafferty, Steve Matson and “Big” Chris Knowles.

The Chevron group would spend the day working on cars, talking about cars and playing chess. Occasionally they’d press the Coca Cola button on the vending machine, which would dispense a can of beer. 

Gene had a big heart. “He would hire people that needed a second chance. Guys that were down and out or had been in trouble,” Mary said. “Treehouse” John and Chad, two street people that passed away this year, both spent time working at the Chevron station.

Gene sold the station in 1989. It was torn down to make way for a lush public park. One of the park benches sits exactly where his desk used to be, facing the same direction.

Gene was briefly married to a Bolinas woman named Linda Donohue, and raised her son, Nikolas, from age two. Even though they separated six years later, Gene remained a father to Nik, and formally adopted him this year at age 41. He also had another daughter, Ches, with his first wife.

One day in 1982, Gene met a young woman named Mary at a yoga class in Stinson Beach. After running into her a second time, Gene asked Mary she would like to take a leisurely walk along the beach. They were married six years later. For their honeymoon, Gene and Mary spent three weeks touring the stone circles of England and Scotland in a vintage Austin-Healey. Together they had a son, Hauser.

“He was a great dad. He was always there,” Rosalie said. “He always gave us rides and read to us. He taught us how to be adults, how to be good people.” Rosalie said that even in Gene’s final days, he was imparting hard-earned wisdom and advice for the future. “For him every moment was a teachable moment, and every story had a lesson.” — Kyle Cashulin

 

A surfer’s memorial and paddle out on Brighton beach is being planned. Email Mary at mba53@yahoo.com to receive notification and information in advance. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a contribution in Gene’s honor to: Surfrider Foundation, PO Box 6010, San Clemente, CA 92674 or to Hospice by the Bay, 17 E. Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Larkspur, CA 94939.