North Hills Man Looks Back on a Century
Robert Foell 'took a chance' on Abington, and hasn't left. He turns 100 today.
North Hills resident Robert Foell is an Abington transplant. He can’t claim to be a lifelong resident, but he’s been living in the township longer than most people — about 70 years, and he moved to the township when he was about 30.
Saving you a trip to the abacus, that makes Foell 100 years old. Today.
Happy birthday, Robert.
Foell spoke from his North Hills home; he lives in a carriage house adjacent to the house he bought on Maple Avenue in 1942 for a mere $3,500. Prior to that, he lived in a bungalow up the street, closer to the corner of Maple and Pine avenues. And before that, he lived in Philadelphia, near the corner of Berks and 19th streets.
“We were married, a young married couple. We had two daughters at the time, and we wanted to move somewhere outside of the congested city, so we rode around different sections, and we knew a couple of people who had moved up to Abington so we took a chance and we were able to rent a bungalow and we’ve been here ever since,” Foell said.
Foell isn’t your typical 100-year-old man. (Maybe the phrase “typical 100 year old” isn’t appropriate.) He’s independent, gregarious and is able to walk around his home with the assistance of his cane. Furthermore, he holds a part-time job at a Grace Baptist Church in Blue Bell.
“I was doing a whole lot of things at the church,” Foell said, “I helped with some of the maintenance, I did all the copying and kept track of all the necessary papers and so forth, I prepared the mail — I’m still doing that, but I’m not allowed to do any of the maintenance work. I’m not allowed to climb ladders, I can’t!”
And how’s he get to work?
“Well, I just had my driver’s license renewed for four more years,” he said with a laugh.
(Incidentally, Foell learned how to drive on his father’s Model T and his first car was a Model A.)
Prior to working at the church — he’s done so for 35 years — Foell worked at SPS in Glenside, constructing “exploding bolts” which were used on the Saturn V as part of the Apollo program. And before that, Foell worked at Proctor Electric Co. in the Hunting Park section of Philadelphia. The company was told to “do war work or nothing,” so Foell became instrumental in making things like pilots’ ejector seats and 20-mm shell casings.
Foell’s youngest daughter Lois Odabas lives in his former house and is able to check up on him. As for the neighborhood, he said not much has changed. Perhaps a part of that is attributed to Foell and his family staying put.
“It hasn’t changed that much,” he said. “The families that are living here are much older. When we first moved in here, there were quite a few children in the area.”
He added that the Napa auto parts store used to be the house of the owner of the drug store — which used to be housed in the peninsula between Mt. Carmel Avenue and Limekiln Pike.
“Other than that, there were not many other big changes,” he said.
Odabas said that Foell and her mother used to hit up Willow Grove Park to hear John Philip Sousa play.
“That’s where he and my mom used to date," she said. "They’d take the trolley up from the city. That’s going back … During the summer it was an open-air trolley car and it went up York Road. The grassy strip in the middle of Tyson Avenue was where the trolley tracks were. And the stop was where Papa John’s is now."
Foell nodded, adding that he and his wife used to ride the rides and then listen to Sousa on Wednesday nights.
As for the typical stats one asks of someone who’s turning 100 … here they are: Foell has four children, 12 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren. His daughter Nancy lives in Lansdale and he’s quick to point out that his eldest daughter, who lives in North Carolina, retired from nursing at the age of 74. Foell was also the Scout leader of Boy Scout Troop 33 and was the mentor of five Eagle Scouts.
“We’re really proud of him,” Odabas said … “He’s as old as Oreos!”
(Oreos actually have Foell beaten in the race to 100 by 21 days.)
On turning the big 1-double-0, Foell said people are making a big deal out of it, and added that he’s never been photographed more. He’s gotten a birthday card from President Obama and the First Lady, as well as commendations from the Pennsylvania State Legislature.
“Everybody else makes more of a thing about being  than me,” Foell said. “The church [on March 25] at the end of the service, instead of everybody coming out, one of the ushers came to me and said, ‘Follow me,’ and he took us up to the front of the church. There were two rows of seats that they set out for us, and then they had my face projected up on the wall, and they were saying all sorts of things.”
They were good things.
“They turned the lights down, and a former pastor and his wife were congratulating me, and another couple who were missionaries in Chile, and another couple who were missionaries years ago and interim pastors — they all came back to see me.
“There were several people who I haven’t seen in a while,” he said. “There were cakes and candles and so forth. I had an inkling that they might do something. They hadn’t had anybody live to be 100 yet in the church.”