Colette Abbott

By Peter Carrels

On May 4, 2016, Colette Abbott, wife of USD President James Abbott and mother of three daughters, died as the result of complications from cancer. Her tragic, sudden death stunned and deeply saddened many. Colette’s cancer had been diagnosed only days earlier, and she intended to undergo surgery and treatment.

We recognize them as distinct and rare when we meet someone who possesses a warm, authentic aura, a radiance that seems to glow. Those who knew Colette Abbott fondly described her personality and presence. “She sparkled with peace and happiness,” said Kim Grieve. “She was,” David Gier declared, “honesty and joy.” Celia Miner remembered, “When you worked on a challenging project with Colette, she made it feel like the clouds opened up, and optimism and opportunities blossomed.”

From her courtside seat at University of South Dakota basketball games, alongside husband and University President Jim Abbott, Colette projected an infectious enthusiasm. “Not to take anything away from so many devoted Coyote fans,” explained President Abbott, “but she was the best fan ever for all things USD.”

The short-haired blonde with the gleaming smile was not only married to the university’s president, she also became deeply connected to the institution. “She loved everything about the university,” Jim Abbott offered, “and she was especially excited to meet and know students, and to watch them grow while they were here.”

Mirror Twins

Colette Abbott grew up in Pierre, the youngest of six children born to Gladys and Merlyn Pugh. She was an identical, mirror twin, a left-handed contrast to right-handed Colleen. As youngsters the Pugh twins would walk together after school to South Dakota’s capitol building when the Legislature was in session. There they would sit quietly in the balcony, paying close attention to the chatter and debate of the state’s lawmakers, enjoying the setting’s majestic formality. It was an unconventional way for two young girls to pass the time, but it built in both an interest in observing, listening and learning.

“We were inseparable,” remembered Colleen. “We were rarely seen apart.” But Colette struggled with dyslexia, a condition that had been especially difficult with insensitive classmates and teachers, and the disorder left Colette unsure of her own abilities. Colette later admitted that as younger women she felt her twin sister could do nothing wrong, and she could do little right.

High school graduation did pull them apart. Although Colleen opted for college at South Dakota State University, Colette married, and she and her husband moved to Vermillion, enrolling at the University of South Dakota. The sisters tracked different paths, and lived dramatically different lives, but they communicated frequently and stayed supportive of one another.

Each became a mother, and Colleen moved to Sioux Falls, while Colette relocated to Brookings, and she and her husband later divorced.

Meeting Jim

Introduced by a mutual friend, Jim Abbott and Colette Pugh met in August 1986, mixing with a merry throng at the Riverboat Days festival in Yankton, where Jim was president of a cable television company. Colette wanted to partake in venerable tradition at Yankton’s Icehouse bar, and as Jim sipped a soda, Colette finished her beer and ceremonially tossed the bottle beneath that establishment’s outside deck and against a brick wall. She laughed as the glass container shattered and joined the remains of a thousand others. “She always had an acute sense of adventure,” Jim recalled.

They were smitten with each other from the start. “Jim and Colette were a perfect match, a dynamic couple that complemented each other so well,” exclaimed Celia Miner, a Yankton attorney and friend of the Abbotts. They married in early 1987, just seven months after first meeting.

“Jim treated her like a princess, and she was very happy moving with her two young daughters to Yankton to be part of his life there,” explained Colette’s twin, Colleen Van Loh. Jim Abbott later served as a legislator, offering Colette Abbott a chance to revisit the state capitol in her hometown, and view her husband serving in the same setting that meant so much to her childhood.

A Return to USD

In 1997, Jim accepted appointment as president of USD, and the thriving family—Jim, Colette and now three daughters—relocated from Yankton 25 miles east to Vermillion to take up residence in the president’s stately home.

“She thought it was an honor to be called the first lady of USD,” said Colleen, describing her sister’s joy to be associated with the university and hosting visitors at the president’s residence. “She met many interesting people there,” Colleen explained, “but her favorite visitors were students, especially the groups of honor students that came to their home several times each school year.”

'She was genuinely interested in encouraging our students, and she was a great listener.'

“She was genuinely interested in encouraging our students, and she was a great listener,” remembered Kim Grieve, vice president and dean of students at USD. “Students felt comfortable speaking with her.”

Under the Abbott’s attentive vigilance the president’s home on Vermillion’s Main Street was tastefully remodeled, gently expanded, and it acquired a comfortable, dignified ambience; perfect as a gathering place for university functions.

“Colette was,” Kim Grieve recalled, “a graceful hostess at university get-togethers.”

Colette also became a regular volunteer for her children’s school activities, and then other activities and opportunities presented themselves.

Passion for Running

She and her twin sister began jogging to stay healthy about the time they hit 40. It didn’t take long before they started running in marathons together, and running together is exactly what they did. Wearing identical outfits, from shoes to visors, the two women made it their routine to cross the finish line hand in hand, a tradition they followed at more than 25 races. “Colette would notice things like landscaping and flowers while we ran,” recalled Colleen. “And she would encourage other runners.”

At the time of her death Colette had run in 38 marathons, and her sister had completed 39. “At the end of each race I’d be tired, but she’d be excited, with that runner’s high,” remembered Colleen. The couple always captured pre-race and post-race photos, and after a few years of this Colette insisted on freshening her trademark red lipstick for each one.

It wasn’t just the “running” that appealed to her, she discovered an affinity for the commitment and dedication she discovered in herself and that she witnessed in people who were willing to train and work hard in athletics. One of her favorite volunteer activities at the university was working at track meets as a timer. “She enjoyed the atmosphere at track meets,” recalled Jim Abbott. “It gave her the chance not only to serve the university, but to see athletic competitions from closer vantage.”

Race for the Cure

Her passion for running found an especially productive outlet when she was paired with a Yankton woman named Colleen Schurrer in 2006 to help stage a race to benefit breast cancer research. The Susan G. Komen organization, the world’s largest contributor to breast cancer research, wanted a presence in South Dakota. The organization sponsors walking and running events to raise money, and Schurrer volunteered to get the organization launched in the state. Feeling overwhelmed, Schurrer needed someone to help her with fundraising and organizing. Celia Miner was also involved, and she introduced her to Colette Abbott.

The two women—Colleen Schurrer and Colette—swiftly became effective partners and close friends, and for five years they worked together to target sponsors, raise money and organize a massive annual event the Komen organization in each state calls a “Race for the Cure.”

“We communicated almost daily, if we weren’t together,” remembered Colleen Schurrer. “We bonded quickly because we shared a love for family, and because we believed in the cause.” Colette had earlier lost her mother to cancer, and was immediately drawn to the organization’s meaningful objectives.

“We also bonded because neither of us had much experience as fundraisers and organizers of an event this large,” explained Colleen. “We truly were amateurs, and we made plenty of early mistakes, but Colette pushed us on, and we surprised ourselves with great successes.”

“She had an ability to make people feel better,” Schurrer added. “She was genuinely humble, and honesty and kindness were her special attributes. Those helped us make new friends and sponsors for Komen, and the race became a glorious, successful event.”

Indeed, the two helped raise an estimated $700,000 from South Dakota’s “Race for the Cure”, and thousands of participants ran or walked to a finish line each year that Colette arranged within the DakotaDome. Komen’s overall investment for cancer programs in South Dakota during the time Colette and Colleen worked together—2006 to 2011—exceeded $1 million.

Colette joined the board for the South Dakota Symphony, where she contributed integrity and passion, according to David Gier, the symphony’s musical director. “She was a cultural ambassador,” explained Gier, “not only for the university but the symphony. She thought each were South Dakota treasures.”

The Children’s Home Society, a non-profit devoted to aiding children who lack supportive home lives, was another organization that benefitted from her commitment and talents. “Because she was such a great mother, and was so devoted to her own children, it troubled her knowing that there were kids who didn’t have such a loving home life,” explained husband Jim. “That’s what attracted her to helping the Children’s Home Society.”

Other involvements included the South Dakota Foundation and its Fairy Godmother’s Fund, the Vermillion Community Foundation and the Heartland Humane Society. But for all her civic and social contributions Colette’s life was centered mainly on her family—her brother and sisters, and their spouses and children. Her parents. Her own children. Their children. Her husband. They were the brightest stars in her universe.

Loving Words

“As a wife, my mom loved deeply and truly from the depths of her soul,” eldest daughter Sara declared to the crowd assembled at her mother’s memorial service held May 9 on the USD campus.

“As our mother,” added Sara, “she was our true champion, offering unwavering love and support. She fell into her role as grandmother with the greatest of ease, giving me the greatest gift she could: teaching me to be a mom.”

'As a wife, my mom loved deeply and truly from the depths of her soul. As our mother, she was our true champion, offering unwavering love and support. She fell into her role as grandmother with the greatest of ease, giving me the greatest gift she could: teaching me to be a mom.'

Summers for many years were spent at the Abbott home in Nantucket, a quaint island village in the Atlantic Ocean south and east of Massachusetts. For at least one week each summer the twin sisters Colleen and Colette would reconnect there, with the house to themselves. They’d carry on about their kids and grandkids. They’d go for a run. And they giggled, a shared characteristic; the same light-hearted giggle that often punctuated sentences they’d start and finish for each other.

As she awaited surgery and medical treatment, Colette requested that USD Athletic Director David Herbster give a tour of the new Coyote athletic facility, where next year’s USD volleyball and basketball teams will compete.

Herbster described an ongoing discussion he had been having with President Abbott regarding the color of the arena’s courtside seats. Herbster favored black, while the president pushed for red. As the three toured the new facility Colette gazed over the glistening basketball court and pondered where her own seat might be. Then she asked Herbster about the color of the seats, and before he could respond she answered her own question: “They’ll be red, won’t they?”

In that instant Herbster knew the discussion about chair color had been resolved. “Red it was, from that moment on,” he chuckled.

USD’s number one fan loved Coyote red; loved wearing it, and loved being surrounded by it.

She also loved roller coasters, fresh flowers, hot fudge, pink cake, yoga, the Dave Matthews band, and she was a tireless cross-country road tripper, always preferring to drive. For her 60th birthday she and her daughters planned a skydiving adventure.

“Colette was bubbly, vivacious and full of energy,” said Jim Abbott. “And she was always happy. She liked everybody, and she was always a little surprised that people liked her.”

Such surprises must have been steady and ceaseless.

The university, the city of Vermillion, a statewide community, and especially her friends and family were jolted by her abrupt death, and will forever feel her absence. She may have left without a long goodbye, but radiant Colette will long be remembered.