Poquoson veteran has a passion for leadership

At first glance, Richard Abel of Poquoson is a study in contrasts.

The retired Air Force brigadier general had a military career spanning more than 25 years that included assignments from the elite hallways of the Air Force Academy to the power rings at the Pentagon.

Abel, 79, served at the uppermost levels of the military during some of the nation's most troubling days. During the early 1970s, he was part of the Operation Homecoming team that escorted home the last of the U.S. service members who had been held in North Vietnamese prison camps, including now U.S. Sen. John McCain. Later, Abel served as special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time of the Iranian hostage crisis. His service and achievements have been recognized with numerous medals and honors, including the Defense Superior Service Medal and the Bronze Star Medal.

His leadership experience goes beyond the military. The general has held high-ranking positions on the boards of philanthropic groups and national organizations. Today he speaks about leadership to corporations, universities, the military and other organizations across the country.

But Abel, who has written two books on leadership, doesn't stand on ceremony.

Ann, his wife of 56 years, tells a story of overhearing a cadet refer to her husband as "Larger than Life Abel," but she adds that the general knows he's not perfect. "He's not pretentious. He recognizes his cracks."

On leadership

Service to others is the foundation of leadership, the general says. And that it is essential to maintain consistency in leadership. His tenets of leadership are integrity, communication and love.

"It's about those you serve," he said. "Not you."

Ann Abel calls that desire to work with and be role models for others the general's passion.

He has started Bible study groups at various bases in areas where he's served, several of which remain active years after Abel moved on. In the 1990s, after retiring from the military, Abel began leading new squadron commanders at Langley Air Force Base through a three-hour interactive seminar on leadership. The material eventually became the foundation for his books. Throughout his career, he worked directly with athletes, both professional and collegiate, and currently maintains a relationship with the athletes at the University of Virginia.

Abel refers to these men and women who have crossed his path, along with his family — his wife, four children, 19 grandchildren and two great grandchildren — as his legacy. He often stays in touch with those he's met, his wife said, and she says the people who have worked for him are often his biggest cheerleaders.

That impact on others is clearly demonstrated in the number of endorsements contained in Abel's books, from pro athletes, to singer/songwriters, congressmen, business executives and a national news anchor. Still, according to Ann Abel, his first-stop editor who "takes out the red pen" when he's done, the books maintain her husband's down-to-earth quality.

His freelance book editor, Cathy Welch, who has been a freelance writer for the Daily Press, also notes that quality in Abel.

"You can call him Dick," Welch said.

As for her husband's books, Ann calls them "manuals—one-flight reads that comprise good, basic principles of living a good life."

Faith defines life

"My dad used to say, 'The ground is level at the foot of the cross,' " said daughter Tamera Mattson. "He meant by that (that) there is no one person above anyone else — we are all equal before God," she wrote in an email.

It is that vision of equality that joins the extremes — the military general versus the man at the foot of the cross. As a former president of both the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and executive director of Campus Crusade for Christ's Military Ministry, Abel speaks frequently and matter-of-factly of his faith in God and God's role in his life. He and wife Ann have passed their faith on to their children as well.

Daughter Teresa Martino wrote in an email that her father often led family devotions, and the family chose to worship at churches with vital youth ministries that provided positive peer support.