The Briefcase: Small-town roots built Heart O' Tyler leader

Published on Sunday, 13 October 2013 18:17 - Written by BRIAN PEARSON bpearson@tylerpaper.com

Beverly White Abell’s diverse interests while growing up in a small Oklahoma town served her well in preparing her for the busyness of the work she does these days in Tyler.

The activity résumé of her youth includes band, church, cheerleading, debating, art and Student Council.

Today, Ms. Abell manages the Heart O’ Tyler nonprofit organization and serves as department leader of the city of Tyler’s Main Street program.

Her overall mission is to develop arts in Tyler, particularly in downtown, where she has been involved in everything from creating art walks to building restorations, such as the Liberty Theater revival.

Ms. Abell grew up in the small town of Woodward, Okla., population 14,000, in the state’s northwest corner.

“And that’s when there’s a stock show and everything,” she said of her population estimate.

Her father worked in the oil business, while her mother was a homemaker. Ms. Abell grew up with two older brothers.

She framed small-town life like this: “Lots of oil. Lots of cattle. Lots of wheat. But it was a great small town. Lots of activities for kids. Great schools.”

With the nearest metropolitan area more than two hours away, she and her fellow residents made the most of what Woodward had to offer.

In high school, she was first-chair trumpet player, involved in church activities and was a cheerleader. She also took part in the debate and art clubs and served on her Student Council. She graduated in a class of 13 students from Fargo High School in 1981.

She attended Southwestern Oklahoma State University and earned an associate’s degree in commercial art. She then enrolled in Northwestern Oklahoma State, where she earned bachelor’s degrees in journalism and business in 1986.

“My mom got her GED that year,” Ms. Abell said. “She had never graduated from high school. She decided to ride to school with me three days a week and study in the school library.”

After graduation, she took a job with her hometown newspaper, the Woodward News, for which she “covered everything.”

“I could be in on a drug bust in the morning and then cover an eight-man football game that night,” she said.

Every time she was on assignment in Mutual, Okla., it rained.

“The farmers loved me,” she said. “They called me The Rainmaker.”

In addition to bringing rain to Mutual, Ms. Abell covered murder trials, took photographs and put 5 cents in a jar for every “grip and grin” photo she took. The money went to charity once the jar filled. She also did stringer work for The Associated Press.

In 1988, she took a job with the Main Street program in Woodward. The goal of the national Main Street program is to help communities rehabilitate their towns, with a focus on revitalizing older buildings in commercial districts. The program started 33 years ago, according to the organization’s web site.

Ms. Abell then found herself with the Oklahoma Main Street program.

“The Oklahoma Main Street program is one of the best in the nation, and I got a lot of great training,” she said. During that time, she also volunteered as a journalism instructor in prisons.

A few years later, she was called up to the national Main Street center in Washington, D.C.

“It was great,” Ms. Abell said. “I was a national consultant. We call them ‘road warriors’ in the business. My job was to go to a different state every week and a different town every day. I would consult on everything from organizational management to events to infrastructure and business development.”

About that time, she met Chris, now her husband, whom she married in 1998. He was in Washington, D.C., on business from his native country of England.

The couple moved to England, and she got involved with that country’s version of the Main Street program. But then Ms. Abell became ill and was unable to work for two years.

The two returned to the United States about 2001, and Ms. Abell worked the Main Street programs in Cushing, Okla., and Greeley, Colo.

“And then Tyler came calling,” she said.

In a post-Sept. 11 world, her husband, a weapons system engineer in England, had trouble finding work.

“Try being a non-citizen weapons engineer,” she said with a laugh.

One day, Ms. Abell gave her husband a pocket watch, and, as engineers are prone to do, he promptly took it apart and put it back together.

That got him interested in pocket watches, so much so that he launched a “casual” watch-repair business. That led to him enroll in watch school in Paris, where he earned a certificate in “horology,” or making watches.

“He’s now an extremely busy watch maker,” Ms. Abell said. “That’s his career now.”

She said forging a partnership between Heart O’ Tyler and the city ranks among her favorite accomplishments since coming here more than a decade ago.

“None of this stuff I did,” she quickly noted. “This is stuff we did. I don’t do anything single-handed. I’m just the seamstress who sews things together.”

Ms. Abell, 50, has helped spearhead the downtown Tyler arts movement, with the Downtown Tyler Arts Coalition, Gallery Main Street, the art walk and Liberty Hall all part of that movement. She and her staffs have raked in almost a dozen awards for their efforts.

“I get paid for this, but there are some people who dedicate hundreds of hours to make things happen downtown,” she said, adding that time and money post her biggest challenges.

Sometimes she works as many as 100 in a week, she said.

“You never do less than 50,” she said. “You never do a part-time week. We have to fundraise more than half of our budget. We’re constantly watching that dollar. We’re always having to watch a dollar and raise a dollar.”

One of her most successful projects have been an annual film festival, which started with eight films in 2011, grew to 30 the next year and boasted 80 films submitted this year.

In her rare moments of spare time, Ms. Abell enjoys cooking, gardening and painting.

 

Most subjects for this column come from business cards randomly pulled from a briefcase. Send cards to Managing Editor Brian Pearson, 410 W. Erwin St., Tyler, Texas, 75702.