Rural Virginia A Voice
Bill Sherrod, Editor
Speaking Out in
for the Folks Back Home, Watkins Abbitt, Jr., Carries On a Family Tradition
of Public Service.
Across a large swath of Central and
, the name Abbitt is synonymous with public service.
For decades, there have been Abbitts in
positions of public trust — from a judge to elected officials — working
to improve the lives of their communities.
Beginning his 22nd year as a Virginia
General Assembly member, 59th District Del. Watkins M. Abbitt, Jr., is one
of the most influential members of the state’s House of Delegates, with
assignments ranging from the Appropriations Committee to the Commerce and
And his years of service to his fellow
Virginians is a family tradition: His father, the late Watkins M. Abbitt,
congressman for nearly 25 years.
Native, Abbitt, 62, is a native of
and grew up near where he and his wife, Madeline, currently reside, just
outside the town of
on a rolling, scenic farm called Rose Bower. The farm is only a couple of
miles from his family’s homeplace at the tiny, rustic crossroads community
of Vera, where his late grandfather, George Abbitt, operated a country store
for 40 years.
Much of Abbitt’s district — which
includes the counties of Appomattox, Buckingham, Cumberland, Nelson and
parts of Albemarle, Fluvanna and Prince Edward counties — is rural, with
historically agrarian economic characteristics. Abbitt himself is marginally
involved in agriculture through his farm, which he leases. His main
avocation, however, is as
small-town businessman. He owns an insurance agency, Conner-Abbitt
Insurance, and a land-sales company, Abbitt Realty, both located in the town
Because he lives and operates successful
businesses in a small
community, Abbitt understands the challenges facing residents of small towns
and rural areas across the Commonwealth. In this –
his way of life — Abbitt finds what he believes is his strongest asset in
serving the people who have repeatedly elected him the past 22 years.
“I feel that my greatest value during
my tenure as a delegate has been as a voice for rural
,” Abbitt says. “Whether it’s been by working to help electric
cooperatives in their mission of service to their members, or boosting
funding for education in rural areas, I’ve tried to be an advocate for
. This is something that I take great pride in.”
While he acknowledges that tending to
the details of lawmaking is important, Abbitt sees his role more as that of
servant, rather than legislation-crafting politician. “We do a lot of
constituent service. I think this job is more about being an ombudsman for
the people you represent — a link between them and the state bureaucracy
— than it is about the 45 or 60 days the General Assembly is in session.
“For example, if somebody’s having a
problem with a state agency, you can help them cut through the red tape to
solve the problem — you can try to make some sense out of the bureaucracy
for that person in your community.”
Abbitt believes that the tremendous
growth taking place in parts of the state makes it especially important that
have a clear and powerful voice in
when legislation is being crafted. In fact, the growth explosion in
and Tidewater is the biggest change Abbitt has seen in his years in the
General Assembly. “Rural
is changing, too, just not as fast as other parts of the state,” he says.
Changes in rural
range from the evolution of agriculture to the growing numbers of people
moving into rural areas to settle.
“We need a strong voice to explain our
needs, to ensure that we get the funding we need for education, police and
fire protection, roads, and the other components that contribute to a
community’s quality of life,” Abbitt says. Such needs may not be
immediately apparent, especially to anyone not familiar with the unique
characteristics of rural, small-community life. “It’s very important
that we make sure our voice is heard in
,” Abbitt notes.
When you first meet Abbitt, the
advocate’s voice comes across with strength — but warmly, with a
lilt. In conversation, you very quickly come to understand that you’re
talking to a genuine
gentleman whose homespun approach to public service is refreshing in a
postmodern age of sound bites and buzzwords.
And the core values that have kept him
in office more than two decades reflect the best traditional facets of
public service. Abbitt is a “people person.” He likes working with,
talking with and just being around people; and helping people is really what
compels him to continue in elected office.
“On a state level, you can actually
make a difference — you can really help people — as soon as you’re
elected,” notes Abbitt. “And this is a very rewarding thing. It gives
you the opportunity to return something to your community.”
This is a point Abbitt especially tries
to make with young people, when talking about the reasons a person should
get involved in any kind of community service.
“Any time I talk to young people about
holding elected office or about public service in general, I try to let them
know that the service part of the job is what is really rewarding – you
hear this idea a lot, but it really is true. The ‘giving back’ is the
part that’s most rewarding about elected office.”
Take your children
to the polls
Like many of his generation, Abbitt is
concerned with what he perceives as diminishing interest in government at
all levels. “We’re now in the second consecutive generation where there
are increasing numbers of non-voters,” he says. “This tendency not to
vote among young people is not good. But it’s something that we can work
on and improve. And the change can start at home, with parents and
According to Abbitt, “If parents take
their children, or if grandparents take their grandchildren with them to the
polls when they go to vote, it shows the child the importance of civic
involvement. And we’re talking young children, age three, four, five.
Research shows that if an adult has carried a child or grandchild to the
polls, there’s an 80 percent chance that the youngster will vote when he
or she grows up, compared with about a 22 percent chance that the youngster
will vote if he hasn’t visited the polls with his parents or grandparents
... So this is one more way that parents and grandparents really can have a
positive impact on their young people’s futures.”
When not in his office at
, or in
tending to General Assembly business, or in his district visiting with
constituents, you’re likely to find Watkins Abbitt outdoors, doing
anything from hunting, fishing or canoeing to frying fish or cooking sorghum
for a community benefit.
An avid outdoorsman, Abbitt has
repeatedly, over the years, been recognized for his contributions to
’s natural heritage. He has received awards ranging from the Virginia
Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts’ “Legislator of the
Year,” to “Legislative Conservationist of the Year” recognition from
the Virginia Wildlife Federation.
Abbitt owns the cabin used by Mt. Hope
Hunt Club, where legendary hearty breakfasts are prepared during the chill,
still, pre-dawn hours of deer-hunting season. “My father and four other
people started the club in 1931, when each person pitched in a dollar and
bought a hunting dog,” Abbitt says with a grin.
Today, the clubhouse is a weather-worn
but comfortable gathering place where friends discuss everything from the
latest political gossip to the previous day’s deer drive. The hunt club is
a spot where people can congregate as much to talk and socialize as to hunt.
It’s a rural tradition —the kind that’s so much a part of Abbitt’s
way of life because the central component of the tradition is people.
“When you get right down to it,
elected office is, simply, all about people,” Abbitt concludes. “It’s
about helping people and the community, and that’s something I really