Note: This story is part of a series that Bill Moor is writing for Clay Methodist Church on some of its members’ lives, including their spiritual journeys.
When Chuck and Martha Abernethy welcomed their 10-pound firstborn into the world, they named him John.
“John?” Aunt Peg extorted. “That’s one of the most common names. A boy that big and with all that hair needs a nickname that stands out. What about Spike?”
And that’s what she continued to call her great nephew. “So my parents decided to humor her, “ says J. “Spike” Abernethy, a retired South Bend businessman. “They figured the name would wear off.”
It didn’t. He continued to be Spike for his entire life.
A distinctive name. A tough-sounding name. And apparently an appropriate name. Spike has had to be tough — and hang tough — at times in his life.
HIs father died suddenly of a heart attack when Spike was 16. HIs younger brother David died when Spike was in college. And then later in life, he lost Anne, his wife of 35 years, to cancer.
Spike relied on his mental toughness, but he also relied on his faith that was developed during his youth at First United Methodist Church in downtown South Bend. “I really needed that during my life,” he says.
A good athlete as a kid, Spike had to give up some of his sports when his dad died. He already had been a Chicago Tribune paper boy and worked at Studebaker Golf Course where his father had been the pro.
“After my dad died, I also started bussing tables at Robertson’s tea room and sorting mail at the post office,” Spike says. He needed the money to help his mom, a teacher, and to save for college
Even with that kind of workload, Spike was still able to be senior class vice-president at South Bend Central School (Class of 1967), a member of the National Honor Society and the top player on the Bears’ golf team. He also was the junior city golf champ.
But the Abernethy name is more associated with basketball. Spike says his basketball career peaked in sixth grade when he started on an 18-0 Madison Elementary School team. But his brother Tom? “I knew he was going to be good when he blocked my fall-away hook shot,” Spike admits.
Tom went on to be the city scoring champion at St. Joseph’s High School, a starter on I.U.’s 1976 NCAA championship team and a five-year NBA player, mainly with the Los Angeles Lakers..
Spike is five years older than Tom. In between them was David who was born mentally and physically challenged and died at the age of 18 of pneumonia. “He loved ice cream and wanted to be loved like everyone else,” Spike says. “ I think I learned compassion from David and also to not take life for granted.”
Although both of his parents had gone to Purdue, Spike decided on I.U. because of its business school. Along with his academic load, he did inventory work for Indiana Bell 20 hours a week and was a waiter at a sorority and his fraternity, Sigma Nu. He needed the money to stay in school.
“I’ve always had a strong work ethic, going back to when I would get up at 5:30 in the morning to deliver the Chicago Tribune 365 days a year,” he says.
After graduating from I.U. in 1971, Spike worked for AT&T in Columbus, Ohio for two and a half years as a sales rep. He was on salary but decided he wanted a job that when he worked harder than others, it would pay off. And if it didn’t work out, he could only blame himself.
“I went to my Uncle Jack, who had become my father figure and was a lifelong AT&T executive, and he said if he could do his career over, he would have gone into life insurance.” That sounded good to Spike.
He received two insurance job offers in Indianapolis and decided to talk to his dad’s old friend, South Bend businessman Ed Ehlers, about which offer to take. Ehlers convinced Spike to return to his hometown and work for him at Lincoln National Life.
During his five-plus years at Lincoln, he became the top salesman. He also met his first wife Anne during that time, which led to a blessed 35-year marriage, three daughters (Sarah, Megan and Molly) and nine grandchildren.
In 1979, he went off on his own and started Abernethy & Associates, selling insurance and adding financial planning services. He flourished as a businessman with his long hours and good decisions..
With that success came responsibility. Spike has been a philanthropist and has served on several community boards — including St. Joseph Hospital, the Community Foundation, the History Museum and REAL Services. He also has been a big supporter of Logan, in honor of his brother David, and Hospice, in honor of his late wife Anne.
When Spike’s maternal grandmother died at the age of 103, he and Anne decided to buy her home, Evergreen Hill, in the southwest of South Bend. It would end up being in the family for seven generations. “My great great great grandfather built it after receiving a land grant from President Andrew Jackson in 1831,” Spike says.
They lived there for 15 years until Anne died in 2013 after a courageous six-year battle with breast cancer. “Our faith became so instrumental in our lives,” Spike says. “We gave it over to God. We prayed for duration. We played for peace. We prayed for comfort.
“And we had such gratitude that Anne was able to see all three of our daughters graduate from college and marry and see five of our nine grandchildren born.”
In 2015, Spike married the former Carol Brademas. “I’ve been blessed to have been married to two wonderful women,” he says. “Carol treats my family like her own.”
Spike, a history buff and collector of vintage golf clubs, joined joined Clay Methodist five years ago and serves in the Stephen ministry. He usually goes to the early service and then drives Carol to her Catholic church.
He tries to live by the Golden Rule that his mother taught him when he was a boy. “And I pray every morning about how God can use me to help better the world.”