Abe Bashara was old-school Lawrence, a face of the Immigrant City from back in the day.
The gentleman, civic ambassador and restaurateur’s signature work ethic and warmth showed countless youth how to treat people and succeed in the often harsh, competitive and unforgiving adult world.
His legacy still reaches young people in Lawrence at the Abe Bashara Boathouse, where community programs serve thousands each year.
Bashara died Wednesday, May 25, at the age of 96, cared for until the end by health care workers and his last brother at the family home in Methuen.
Joey Bashara, 91, and Abe lived together their entire lives. Neither married but both were wedded to the family business, Bishop’s restaurant in Lawrence. Their mother, Saada, affectionately known as “The Chief,” opened Bishop’s as a small eatery in 1949.
How could two brothers live the better part of a century under the same roof, and also work together?
In a phone interview Friday, Joey said there was an occasional push and pull between them at the restaurant, but they separated that out at the end of the day.
“We had two lives, business and home,” he said. “When we came home, it was family. He was a brother that everyone would like to have.”
‘He loved what he did’
Abe Bashara was a child of the Great Depression, born in Lawrence in 1925, one of seven siblings. Their father, Solomon, died during the Hurricane of 1938.
The family had come to the United States from Lebanon in the early 1900s and lived among other Lebanese immigrants in The Plains section of Lawrence.
The neighborhood children knitted tight bonds with each other and became lifelong friends. As adults, the gang met for coffee every Thursday morning up until the pandemic.
Abe graduated from Lawrence High School in 1942, was drafted into the Army the next year and fought in Europe during WWII.
He came home in 1946, earned a college degree and joined the family restaurant business.
Abe’s nephew Chuck Saba first remembers being in the old Bishop’s at the corner of White and Oak streets as an 8-year-old.
“Him (Abe) being at the front of the restaurant greeting and seating people,” Saba recalled. “He was always smiling. Happy always. He loved what he did.”
The restaurant was his baby, and would remain so until it closed in 2001 after Abe had an aneurysm.
He was a mainstay in the state and national restaurant associations and friends with other first families of New England restaurants.
He created hundreds, if not thousands, of relationships and was always ready to connect young people to those who could help them pursue their interest, said Saba, who followed his uncle’s footsteps into the hospitality business, managing hotels and restaurants.
Those young people’s goals may have been in business, banking, law, medicine, entertainment or most anything else, given the connections Abe had nurtured.
People ranging from U.S. senators to professional athletes and Hollywood stars knew and felt comfortable with Abe and Bishop’s restaurant, as did every Joe and Jane from all walks of life in the Merrimack Valley, he added.
Abe could be walking down the street in Boston and the governor would see him and holler, “‘Abe, Abe how are you?’ and they would start talking,” Saba said.
Abe likely had a need to represent and help his family, his friends and the city of Lawrence.
“I think, ultimately, Abe was a shy person who kept to himself. But when he was working, he was on,” Saba said. “That was his love. He was a completely different person.”
The Bishop’s experience
Bishop’s restaurant moved from White and Oak streets in 1968 to a big stage, of sorts — the new spacious building at 99 Hampshire St. that most people picture when they think of Bishop’s.
Abe and his family introduced the region to Lebanese fare such as hummus and kibbeh. They also served tenderloin steaks, chicken, fish and 3-pound lobsters.
The restaurant flourished in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, drawing people to Lawrence from throughout the state and beyond. They wanted to know the Bishop’s experience – a night out that might include dancing and live music in the downstairs lounge. The restaurant also hosted belly dancing shows.
People often gathered in the lounge or the lobby to wait to hear their name called and be seated in the sprawling dining room. Two-hour waits starting at 4 p.m. were common on a Saturday night.
Bishop’s fries were legendary. The family once experimented with frozen french fries, but immediately Abe and everyone else discovered it was a terrible mistake and reversed course to the tried-and-true fresh cut ones.
The restaurant was a center of family life, a place for birthday parties, wedding receptions and mercy meals.
Scot Gabriel, whose grandfather grew up in The Plains with Abe and was his best friend, said Abe was the gentleman out front at Bishop’s.
“When you walked in, it was like you were walking into his house,” said Gabriel, an Andover lawyer.
Jack Wilson, also a lawyer, remembers his mom would take him to Bishop’s to celebrate the last day of school each year.
He went on to work at the restaurant as a busboy and waiter for 10 years during high school and college, starting in 1976.
Abe was ubiquitous, impeccably attired in a dress shirt, tie and dinner jacket, and always personable. You felt his presence, and his absence on Tuesday, when he’d take time off.
“He was the first adult I was invited to call by his first name. ‘You call me Abe,’” Wilson remembers being told.
Wilson and other staff were convinced that Abe had the gift of bilocation, the ability to be at both ends of the 500-seat dining room at the same time.
He was also in the kitchen, popping up in the lobby, and always saying hello to guests — and all seemingly at once.
Rich Padova, now a history professor at Northern Essex Community College, was a busboy at Bishop’s in 1977, the summer of his junior year in high school.
Padova said employees knew how important the restaurant was to Abe and this inspired them to keep their bow ties straight, their shirts and pants neat.
If Abe needed to correct an employee, he did it in private, in a tactful and respectful way, Padova said.
Some former employees would refer to the restaurant as Bishop University, a place where they learned the ropes.
‘His heart was in the city’
Abe was a strong supporter of education.
He was also a co-founder of the American Lebanese Awareness Association and was a driving force behind the association’s scholarship fund. Begun in the 1980s, the fund now has awarded more than $1 million in scholarships.
This year it awarded 27 scholarships totaling $42,000, said Gabriel, who was a recipient about 30 years ago.
Another of the recipients was Shadi Asmar, owner of Shadi’s restaurant in North Andover.
Asmar got to know Abe in his retirement.
Before COVID-19 hit, Abe and his brother Joey would eat lunch at Shadi’s each Monday.
“He would tell the old stories about times in the restaurant,” Asmar said. “It was his life. The community was his life.”
Dave O’Neill, the first director of the Lawrence Heritage State Park, remembers a divisive time in Lawrence’s history, 1984, when a contest to name a new park by the Central Bridge was introduced as a gesture to bring people together. It succeeded, attracting more than 800 entries.
The sole winner whose suggestion won the contest was to receive a helicopter ride around Lawrence and dinner for four at Bishop’s.
It turned out that 13 people came up with the winning suggestion for the riverside property: Pemberton Park.
O’Neill hesitated to ask the restaurant to host more than the one winner and the three guests. But Abe, without hesitation, opened a section Bishop’s for the 13 winners and their guests, which amounted to more than 50 people.
“His heart was in the city,” O’Neill said.
Abe was also a prime advocate for the Greater Lawrence Community Boating Program, started in 1979. He eventually put together donors to build the 10,000-square-foot boathouse to support river programming for young people.
“He was a giver, a giver, a giver – never a taker,” O’Neill said.
The boating program’s director, Jed Koehler, said Abe wanted Lawrence youth to have the same kinds of opportunities to develop sailing and boating skills, gain confidence on the water and have a fun and safe time, as do youth in seaport communities.
“Without Abe Bashara it wouldn’t have been done,” Koehler said.
On Friday, Exavian Aparicio, 20, of Lawrence, was working there.
He first visited the Abe Bashara Boathouse when he was 7 years old and has been a regular in the programs for the last 13 years.
He said he doesn’t know where he would be without the boating program.
He never met Abe, but if he had, he would have wanted to thank him.
“He put this building here for me to find, and get a future for myself,” he said.
Abe’s contributions to the city and its residents earned him accolades such as the Ralph Wilkinson Award as Citizen of the Year in the Merrimack Valley.
But much of what he did for people was done quietly, without seeking recognition, and for no reason beyond it being his way of conducting himself.
Some of those contributions are documented in folders and oral histories at the Lawrence History Center.
“Abe Bashara was truly one of the Lawrence greats,” said the center’s Amita Kiley.
Joey said he closed Bishop’s 20 years ago after Abe’s aneurysm because they had lost an older brother and a sister, co-owners of Bishop’s.
“I don’t want to lose Abe,” he was his thinking, he said.
They had been in business 52 years and Abe would have another 20 years to live.
A highlight of their working life was being named the Massachusetts Small Business of the Year. Abe and Joey were honored by President Jimmy Carter at the White House, had lunch with Rep. Paul Tsongas and toured the U.S. Capitol with House Speaker Tip O’Neill.
Even with all the accolades, however, those who knew Abe are most likely to remember him for a life well lived and what he did for his family and others — and The Immigrant City.