Richard D. Abrams, 57

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 3:49pm

Mark Abrams remembers the summer when his younger brother Rick — then only 14 — became the chef at The 1661 Inn on Block Island, which the Abrams family had recently purchased.

The chef had burned his hand and couldn’t work. So Rick stepped in —demonstrating the determination, drive, and good cheer that would later lead not only to some enviable culinary skills, but also to his success as an educational software pioneer and his community-building initiatives in Lexington, Mass., where he lived.

Richard D. Abrams, beloved husband, father, and son, and a steadfast friend to many in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, died on Sunday, June 15. He was 57.

Though the Rhode Island native spent his adult years in Massachusetts, Rick, a graduate of the La Salle Academy in Providence, was a true son of Rhode Island, and visited frequently. He and his wife, Susan Kenyon, were married at the Dunes Club in Narragansett and remained longtime members.

Those who knew Rick refer to him as one of the most relentlessly upbeat people — as well as the most quietly and humbly effective — that they have ever met.

This gift certainly was apparent when the young teenager ran the family inn’s kitchen. Mark remembers Rick’s hard work — long shifts with his brother at The 1661 Sandwich Shoppe on Block Island’s Water Street, and endless hours improving the inn, which later grew to become the 1661 Inn and Manisses Hotel. “We’d do all the painting and wallpapering of the rooms in the off season,” Mark said.

He suspects his brother’s longtime love of cooking — and his talent for it —started when that chef burned his hand. During the inn’s first summer, Rick worked under the injured chef’s guidance, then continued as assistant chef the following summer under a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, John Bowen. Rick also helped redesign the hotel’s kitchen, poring over plans, all while still a teenager.

When Rick was 17, he read about what Johnson & Wales planned to offer in its culinary program in the Providence Journal and forwarded the information to Bowen, suggesting he apply. Bowen, now the Chancellor of Johnson & Wales University, has been at the culinary school for four decades.

“Rick reads this in the Providence paper. He sees this opportunity and sends it on to him,” recalled Rick’s brother, Mark. “He was such a connector. He’s so good at always seeing these opportunities and realizing who could benefit in a positive way from them. Just bringing people together.”

Mark believes Rick’s staunch environmentalism started on Block Island, too. One lasting environmental legacy is a system of walking trails that Rick spearheaded in Lexington. “He did it with his positive vision, his enthusiasm, his grace,” said Deb Mauger, chair of Lexington’s Board of Selectmen, who watched Rick bulldoze through the bureaucracy on a quest to connect the historic town’s walking trails. “He was so elegant in what he did. He would come into meetings and everybody would just vote yes.”

What they voted for was Rick’s long-term vision of a healthier population and a cleaner environment. He was determined to get people out of their cars and onto their feet. His system of trails, called ACROSS Lexington (Accessing Conservation land, Recreation areas, Open space, Schools and Streets) Lexington, is tangible testimony to the extraordinary impact one motivated man can have on a community.

"Across Lexington is an apt metaphor for Rick's lifelong passion for forging connections and bringing people together,” said longtime friend Jamey Rosenfield. “It also reflects his commitment to the environment and the community."

Though he fought a terminal illness for nine years, Rick walked and walked, almost until the end. Rick helped plan the 30-mile Boston Greenbelt Walk and Lexington’s Bike Walk ’n’ Bus Week, for which he led three walks in May, just weeks ago. His Twitter account lists post after post about the physical, mental, and creative benefits of walking. Rick also became an avid follower of tai chi and other alternative mind-body approaches, which helped ground him through numerous surgeries and ups and downs.

Rick also connected people within the thyroid cancer community. As one of only three non-physicians in the 65-member International Thyroid Oncology Group (ITOG) — and the only patient — he was instrumental in helping the group of leading scientists and clinicians develop a plan for raising money for research and building awareness of advanced thyroid cancer.

“There’s this enthusiasm he has for the project that becomes infectious, that helps other people devote their energies to it,” said Dr. Steven Sherman of Houston, ITOG’s chairman. “There are a lot of people who are enthusiastic. Rick combines that energy and enthusiasm with a carefully thought-out plan.” Rick spread the word about ITOG through online initiatives and by bringing his unique patient perspective to the annual THYCA (Thyroid Cancer Survivors) conference.

Dwight Vicks, ITOG treasurer and a member of the organization’s founding team, said Rick helped raise awareness about aggressive thyroid cancers; many people refer to thyroid cancer as the “good cancer” because 93 percent of victims recover. One of the 7 percent, Rick prolonged his life through clinical trials and what Vicks called “superhuman attitude and courage.”

Professionally, Rick made his mark in the educational software industry as a co-founder of Tom Snyder Productions (TSP); he helped the innovative company grow from a start-up into a leader in the field, bringing technology into the classroom before that became standard practice. Snyder remembered the wisdom and maturity of his business partner: “Over 20 years, one could not hope for a more perfect business adventurer, innovator, host, chef, and genuine supporter of every exotic breed of talent he met.” Tom Snyder Productions was acquired in 2001 by Scholastic, where Rick continued working until late 2012.

Margery Mayer, president of Scholastic Education, called Rick a pioneer. “There’s so much conversation about the role of technology and learning. Rick, in partnership with Tom [Snyder] and Dock [David Dockterman, another TSP co-founder], set an agenda that’s still relevant,” she said. “They were thinking about how we can use technology to engage kids, to empower teachers, to cultivate learning that matters. All the questions I hear when I go to a conference, these are the same questions Rick and Dock and Tom asked from the beginning.”

And Rick always seemed to ask the right questions. “That takes somebody with an eager and open mind, really somebody who remains 24 years old," Mayer said. "Rick never aged intellectually; he kept that very young, innovative, somewhat iconoclastic, revolutionary point of view. He never grew out of it.”

Rick had numerous other interests — many of which connected people to one another. Several years ago, when he wanted to start a men’s book club, he rallied several friends who continue to attend the meetings loyally; meetings have attracted visiting authors such as Larry Tye and Daniel Yergin. When Rick wanted to know more about climate change; he invited NASA scientist James Hansen to speak in his home.

Rick was an active member of Temple Isaiah in Lexington, as well as an involved 1978 alumnus of Colby College, where his wife, Susan Kenyon, and son Stanley also attended, and where daughter Sydney is currently enrolled. Susan and Rick helped create the Sandy Maisel Student Research and Internship Fund at Colby, to honor an inspirational professor.

As an outgrowth of his passion for educational and environmental causes, Rick also served on the boards of Wheelock College, the Concord Consortium, Educators for Social Responsibility, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

He is survived by his wife Susan Kenyon; his children Archie, Stanley, and Sydney; his siblings Rita Draper of Block Island, R.I., and Mark Abrams of São Paulo, Brazil; his father Justin Abrams of Block Island, R.I.; and his father-in-law Archibald Kenyon of Wakefield, R.I. He is the son of the late Joan Abrams. The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to the International Thyroid Oncology Group (ITOG), ACROSS Lexington, and/or the Pan Mass Challenge (under the names of participants Archie and/or Stan Abrams).

The funeral is Wednesday, June 18, at Temple Isaiah, 55 Lincoln Street in Lexington, Massachusetts, at 11:30 a.m. Burial will be at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.