Cindy Abbott '74

Cindy Abbott '74

Civic Arts Advocate

Cindy Abbott loves a good story, and for more than 30 years she has used her love of storytelling to captivate an audience, build a career, and rebrand a community.

Abbott (née Ikins) grew up in Clinton, Ohio (about halfway between Akron and Canton). A college education was always part of her parents’ dream for their four children, but tuition at a private college was beyond what they thought they could afford. “My mother wanted me at a small school, and my Latin teacher, Mary Fletcher (a 1932 Wooster graduate), strongly encouraged me to consider Wooster,” said Abbott. “She felt I needed a creative educational environment. In her mind, Wooster was the perfect fit.”

So Abbott applied and was accepted to Wooster. She made up the difference in tuition through scholarships and work-study. Not long after her arrival on campus, she met legendary educator Lowell Coolidge. “He was my adviser, and a true scholar,” she said. “He broadened my interest in literature and research.”

Abbott expanded her horizons in other areas as well. She pursued her love of music through the Wooster Chorus, and explored her interest in other cultures by traveling to Germany and Greece through off-campus study opportunities. “I treasured those experiences,” she said. “I would not have been able to experience the world the way I did without those programs.”

When it came time to declare a major, Abbott chose English over music, in part because of Coolidge’s influence, as well as that of another Wooster legend, Ray McCall. She worked in the library where she helped to catalogue rare books under the guidance of Marilyn Strock, another mentor who encouraged her love of books and literature. When it came time for I.S. (Independent Study: Wooster’s nationally acclaimed undergraduate research experience) she combined her work in Greece with her study of Shakespeare for a project focusing on Oedipus Rex and King Lear.

Abbott’s four years at Wooster passed quickly, but as graduation approached, she wasn’t quite sure what her next step would be. When she learned that her good friend and classmate, Bill Kleinert, was planning to attend Syracuse University’s renowned Newhouse School, she decided to follow along.

“I knew that I liked to talk to people and to tell stories, so a master’s degree in communications from Syracuse made sense to me,” she said. “Initially, I thought I might get into public relations or advertising, but instead I gravitated to television production.”

After earning her master’s degree at Syracuse, Abbott was hired as a producer and host for the PBS station in Endicott, N.Y., where she worked for three years. From there, she went to a commercial station, WYTV, the ABC affiliate in Youngstown, Ohio and hosted Good Morning Youngstown for two-and-a-half years. Then, she returned to upstate New York where she became a host of the morning show (AM Buffalo) on WKBW, the ABC affiliate in that city. “It was live television at its best,” said Abbott. “It gave me a chance to tell stories in a wide range of areas — politics, science, entertainment, and the arts. It became the highest rated local talk show in the country.”

Abbott’s visibility in the media led to a number of other opportunities, most notably invitations to serve as a corporate spokesperson for a variety of companies. She appeared on such national programs as CBS This Morning, and was a regular contributor to Live with Regis and Kathy Lee. She also established a company that provided media training for individuals preparing to appear on television.

At the same time, Abbott’s passion for the arts, fostered during her four years at Wooster and facilitated by her story-telling ability, positioned her to become a volunteer arts advocate for the region. Her efforts garnered a gubernatorial appointment as chair of the Niagara Frontier State Park, Recreation, and Historic Preservation Commission, a volunteer position that oversees the allocation of funding to the 17 parks in that region. She also serves as a Board member for Visit Buffalo Niagara, the area’s convention and visitor’s bureau, and is a member of St. Bonaventure’s Board of Trustees. In addition, she is the past chair of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, a regional art center on the campus of Buffalo State College and played a major role in raising $35 million to build its new museum honoring famed watercolorist Charles Burchfield by lobbying at state and local levels. “As we developed the story and saw how people reacted, we gained more and more support [for the project],” she said. “The building has become more than an art museum; it is a living and breathing community center that has captured the imagination of the people in our region.”

Abbott also served as chair of the Buffalo Philharmonic Board of Directors, and helped to raise funds during a particularly challenging time. When the Orchestra was invited to play at Carnegie Hall in 2013 she convinced 1,500 residents to come support their orchestra at the famed hall and raised nearly $1 million. She also serves as chair of the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission, and played a significant role in bringing the cast and crew of the movie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to Buffalo for a two-week shoot.

Abbott’s community involvement and philanthropic efforts have brought appreciation and acclaim from leaders, foundations, and residents throughout the region. Her honors include the Women of Distinction Award, presented by the New York State Senate for her outstanding contributions to the Empire State; Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser, presented by the Western New York Fundraising Professionals; and the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society Red Jacket Award for outstanding individual achievement and unsurpassed generosity toward the people of Western New York contributing to a greater awareness of the region’s heritage and enrichment of its future.

Abbott and her husband of 34 years, Francis M. Letro, jointly received the St. Bonaventure University Gaudete Award for Community Service, and the Amherst Chamber of Commerce Stewardship Award. She was inducted into the Western New York Women’s Hall of Fame in 2007, and has appeared annually on the Western New York “100 Women of Power” list.

Abbott attributes much of her success to the liberal arts education she received at Wooster. “It gave me many options and encouraged me to interact with many different people,” she said. “The professors were very approachable, and they encouraged students to think broadly and open their minds to what can be rather than what can’t. It’s a place that nurtures you and provides opportunities to help you grow.”

After all these years, Abbott is still telling stories, and the people of Buffalo and surrounding areas are listening as intently as ever. “A community prospers when it has healthy economic development combined with a vibrant arts community. Art, architecture, music, theatre, parks and green space all make us better as contributing members of a community. Buffalo is going through a renaissance. I feel privileged to have played a small part in helping a once struggling region rebrand itself for the 21st century.”

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