EASTHAM — Half an hour before he collapsed on Aug. 7, Joe Abbott was working with his fellow staff members at Willy’s Gym, where he directed the tennis program.
“They were laughing, giggling in the office,” owner Barbara Niggel said. “He went back down to the courts to teach a lesson.”
There, near the courts, Abbott, 63, of South Dennis, collapsed from what was determined to be a heart attack.
“He was fit and watched what he ate,” Niggel said. “There weren’t any warning signs, except his shoulder hurting him.”
Abbott’s death came as a shock to his friends, family, and the tennis community on the Outer Cape.
“He was a total sweetheart,” said Bob Kuttner of Boston and Truro, one of the many people who played at the gym and knew Abbott. “It just stunned everybody.”
Niggel said he had an “infectious personality.”
Abbott’s daughter, Nicole Abbott DeCost, said her father touched many lives. The line of people who wanted to pay their respects was out the funeral home door and around the corner in Yarmouth on Aug. 11. She estimated that at least 500 people came, many from out of state and many more from his former home in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. Some people waited in line as long as two hours.
Abbott made people feel like they were his best friends after only a few interactions, said DeCost. He kept up friendships that dated back decades.
“He connected with everyone,” said his daughter. “I don’t know how he did it. It takes a special person to make you feel like the only person in the room, the world even. He did that with all of us kids, too.”
Abbott had six children, all boys except for Nicole, 10 grandchildren, and one great-grandson. He is also survived by his wife, Francine Abbott, and his mother, Beverly F. Abbott of Boston. His father was the late Joseph C. Abbott.
“My cousins were telling me about conversations they had with him, and I’m like, ‘When?’ ” DeCost said. “He works full-time. He’s helping take care of 10 grandchildren.”
Abbott’s friends, including tennis player David Bernstein, set up a GoFundMe account to raise money for his family. As of Aug. 21 $27,585 had been pledged. Bernstein said Abbott helped develop a successful U.S. Tennis Association program for older people at the gym.
Tennis player Anne Sigsbee of Orleans said she was on a few of the teams Abbott coached.
“He was the kind of person who paid attention,” she said. “It wasn’t just a posture of paying attention. It was true interest.”
DeCost said a large man approached the family at the funeral service.
“He looked like he had gone through a lot in his own life,” she said. “He looked us in the eye, and he was a big man. He said, ‘Joe lifted me off my feet and kissed me on the face.’ ”
Nicole is due to give birth to a daughter in September. Her father worked extensively on the nursery but pretended not to be excited.
“He won’t be able to meet her and that’s the hardest thing we’re trying to deal with,” she said.
Abbott played a crucial role in helping to raise Barbara Niggel’s two sons.
“Joe saw we didn’t have a solid father figure,” said Harrison Niggel. “Joe has always been there for us.”
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