EASTHAM — About 50 people gathered outside Willy’s World Wellness & Conference Center on Aug. 7, marking one year since the death of tennis coach Joe Abbott, who collapsed at work on the gym’s tennis courts.
They held signs remembering Abbott, but said they were also there in protest, because Willy’s owner, Barbara Niggel, has not paid Abbott’s widow the $20,000 Niggel allegedly owed Abbott when he died.
“Be Kind, Be Decent, Willy’s Pay Joe What You Owe,” read the sign held by David Bernstein, a tennis player who started a GoFundMe campaign after Abbott, of South Dennis, died at age 63 of a heart attack on Aug. 7, 2019. The campaign raised about $40,000.
Bernstein and other students of Abbott say they are not done trying to help Francine Abbott, Joe’s widow, as well as his six children and 12 grandchildren.
Ms. Abbott did not want to comment about the money at the protest Friday, but said, “Everyone who is here is why Joe came to work in the morning. And they became my support system this past year. They were his family, and now, they are my family.”
Niggel, through her attorney, Ed Kirk, has disputed Abbott’s claim. Kirk told the Independent in March, “If and to the extent it is demonstrated that Joe Abbott was owed any money at the time of his death, that amount will be paid. Given her long-standing relationship with Joe Abbott, my client would be of the opinion that Joe Abbott would not be happy with the allegations being made against my client at this time.”
Bernstein said Abbott was very loyal to Niggel, who has a long history, documented by numerous small claims in Orleans District Court, of failing to pay contractors and employees, as well as violating building, health, and safety codes, which caused the town of Eastham to shut down the gym for months last December.
Bernstein said Niggel is asking Francine to “jump through hoops” to document the money owed. He and Abbott’s other supporters say they won’t pay fees or use the newly reopened gym until the money is paid.
Protestors also said they were upset about the way Abbott died, immediately after strenuous work to resurface the outdoor courts on a hot August day. They said Niggel had collected extra money from the tennis players to hire a professional contractor for the project.
The day Abbott died, he had been hauling 80-pound bags of material to resurface the courts, said Betsie Lind of Eastham, a longtime student of Abbott’s. Lind said he then began her lesson, but promptly stopped, saying he was feeling too hot and needed to sit down.
Lind said Abbott was sweating profusely. She tried to use the downstairs phone by the indoor tennis courts, but it did not work, so she dialed 911 on her cell phone.
Lind remembered Abbott as more than a tennis instructor. “He was more like a life coach,” she said.
Mary Gulrich, one of Abbott’s students from Eastham, added, “He treated each of us with dignity and respect and greeted us with hugs and joy.”
“We are very saddened that it’s been a full year and we’re still waiting for Francine to be paid,” said Anne Sigsbee, another of Abbott’s students who joined the protest.
Along with private lessons, Abbott coached several teams, including a men’s team that went on in February to win a U.S. Tennis Association national championship in Florida.