STEUBENVILLE - Tom Abernethy, the man with the smooth voice that gently wakened thousands of radio listeners for 40 years with music and information, died Saturday after a long fight against cancer.
Abernethy was 83.
Abernethy, a native of Johnstown, Pa., started his career at the former WSTV-AM in 1959 after he and his wife, Grace, moved to Steubenville with their son, Tim. He worked in several jobs at the radio station until 1999, but was best known for hosting the "Phone Party" talk show and his morning show.
RADIO LEGEND — Tom Abernethy, the original host of WSTV-AM’s “Phone Party,” looks at photos and letters from his career at the radio station during a 2011 interview with the Herald-Star. — Dave Gossett
THE VOICE AT WORK — Tom Abernethy works behind the microphone in this photo from WSTV’s studio early in his career. — Contributed
"In those days we had no way to take calls off the air. The phone was next to me and there was no delay system in place. But listeners were very receptive to the talk show and I got to know people from their calls into the show and recognized their voices," recalled Abernethy in a 2011 interview.
"We started out in the Exchange Building and moved to the present location in the mid 1960s. In 1978, I moved to the morning show and stayed there until 1999. That was a mix of music, news, sports, weather and a little chat," Abernethy added.
In addition to his broadcast career, Abernethy played a leading role in the development of the School of Bright Promise and Jeffco Workshop, where he served as board president for a number of years.
Abnernethy and his wife were lifelong advocates for their son, Tim, and other individuals with disabilities.
"When my parents moved to Steubenville in the late 1950s they helped care for people with disabilities. Sometimes it was almost like a day care center for people with disabilities. He served on the School of Bright Promise for several years and was always very proud of that," said his son, Dr. Michael Abernethy, who now lives in Roscoe, Ill.
"We couldn't have had a better role model. He was a great father and a family man. He had a good work ethic. We were a very middle-class family. Dad was always very generous of his time and money. I remember different people who had fallen on hard times staying with us," Michael added.
During his radio career, he was known as the Voice of the Valley, but his children always thought of him as Dad.
"I think I was in high school when I started to realize my father was a community personality. He was just our dad and absolutely perfect, caring and compassionate father. Our mother is part Italian and had a more direct way of disciplining us. But dad would just look at us and say he was disappointed and we would melt," said Susan Rebich, Abernethy's daughter who now lives in Charlotte, N.C.
"We knew he was involved in a lot of things such as the Steubenville Players, a barbershop quartet and the St. Peter's Catholic Church Choir. But he always had time for us. I think of him as a gentle, very humble person and not one to toot his own horn. He was also very much a peacemaker. First and foremost, he was a very kind and humble man who always looked for the good in all people. As a father, his most important lesson was that of unconditional love, which was taught through his example," Rebich said.
Daughter Jennifer Taylor said she and her sisters and brothers, "were never pushed aside because our dad was busy with community events."
"I never really thought of him as a community person or someone everyone listened to on the radio. He was our dad and pretty darn perfect. He was very kind and compassionate and everything you would want in a dad," said Taylor, who lives in the Columbus suburb of Dublin.
Barbara Cummings of Canfield, the youngest Abernethy child, remembered a father, "who was always very supportive of us. I will also always remember his velvet voice and his love of the community. My dad was able to balance is community involvement and family life. It was second nature to him. And he was an icon in the valley for many years."
Abernethy began his formal musical career as a trumpet player and vocalist with the Army band at the Walter Reed Medical Center and later became involved in the Ohio Valley Barbershop Society and directed the Sweet Adelines chorus.
"Tom sang with our quartet and performed the master of ceremonies duties in the early 1970s. People liked him a lot and enjoyed his bass voice. He was a very good singer and easy to get along with," cited Dick Kuhn of Toronto.
Wendy Vogel, whose air name is Wendy Green, who is part of the morning show on WOGH-FM, the former sister station of WSTV, worked with Abernethy for about 20 years as the morning news reporter during his show.
"There was no finer human being in the entire world," said Vogel, who said there were days that Abernethy was the first awake person she'd talk with. "He was my dad, my brother, my best friend. He was unassuming, non-judgmental. He would welcome even the lowliest of souls into his wonderful life, and we are saddened by our loss of him."
Abernethy's voice, which defined the sound of radio for a couple of generations of residents, was delivered by a man who was as calm in person and in the studio as he sounded. Vogel's favorite funny Abernethy story is about a day when she was able to crack that calmness and cause Abernethy to laugh uncontrollably.
"He was so good at what he did, and you could never catch him off guard. One afternoon, I had some dental work done and by the next morning, the Novocaine had not worn off. There was a fire I had to report at 717 S. Seventh St. I had to say that and my face was numb," she said, imitating the slurred "s" sound she had made that day on the air as she said the address. "Tom lost it. I had that genuine feeling that I made this guy step out of the box."
"Some of the best days of my life in radio were, in a major way, with Tom. I couldn't have asked for a better partner," she said.
Mike Donovan worked at WSTV, which ceased operations in December 2011, from 1984 to 1998 as the afternoon announcer and talk show host. He recalls Abernethy as a great teacher.
"Tom was a very level-headed guy. He taught me things that I still use to guide my life," Donovan said. For example: When I congratulated him on a great rating for his show, he thanked me and said, 'I try not to get too high if the ratings are good, and not too low if they fall ... because they will fall from time to time - for many reasons.' That's a valuable lesson," remembered Donovan
Abernethy hosted the popular "Phone Party" call-in program for years. It was a talk show in the years before shouting and arguing became the AM radio staple it is today. Abernethy would listen to almost anything a caller would say and respond in his calm, measured voice.
Donovan said it was Abernethy's character that made such a show work.
"I never heard that show. But, Tom went about his job as a true professional. If you asked for his assistance, he would oblige, but he never forced his opinion on you. I'm guessing that's why he was so good in the days of 'Phone Party,'" he said.
Early in his career, Toronto's Scott Feist worked with Abernethy.
"I will always be thankful for having the chance to know Tom and his family and for all that he taught me. There are tips that he gave to me that I still remember and use after all these years," said Feist.
Mary Lou Jones of Steubenville grew up listening to Abernethy on the radio.
"He was one of the reasons I went into radio. Tom was full-service AM radio because he provided his listeners with a little bit of music, little bit of talk, the weather and local news and some life style feature stories," said Jones.
I remember meeting him at a choir practice and realizing there was Mr. Abernethy. I eventually ended up working with him and it was quite a treat. The Abernethy family were longtime friends with my family so I have known him for a very long time. I always looked up to him. Tom was very much loved by the community. And he had an amazing career in a small town radio market," declared Jones.
"He was always encouraging and had a kind word for everyone. He was great to work with and just to be around," added Jones.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by Mosti Funeral Home.
A Funeral Liturgy with Mass is set for 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Peter Catholic Church.