By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
Robert Fenner was a constant source of encouragement and enthusiasm for the book, “Unsinkable Patriot.” Recently, the sad news arrived that Bob had passed away at his home in Marlton, N.J., at age 85.
Over the years, Bob Fenner became a true friend, even though, due to his lingering illness, our conversations in recent years needed to be carried out strictly by phone and e-mail. I last communicated with Bob a little more than a week before his death on June 14, when he phoned me to inquire about when the book would go to press. He wrote: “Keep in mind, in the past I did say I wished to buy the first copy from you.” I replied that I hoped to send the book to the printer later that afternoon. As it turned out, the book was published a few days later, but he never got to see it.
Bob Fenner was a descendent of Felix and Maria Fenner. Felix came to Philadelphia from Switzerland in 1743; he and his wife were neighbors and close friends of the family that Thomas Cave (the main subject of “Unsinkable Patriot”) married into. I first met Bob in person when he and a friend visited the old Philadelphia neighborhood where his ancestors made their home—once called Southwark and now called Queen Village—where I live today. I showed them where the Fenners’ house was located and other buildings from the early days that are still standing. Then we traveled to the vicinity of Fourth and Race to see the Reformed German Church and what remains of the old 18th-century schoolhouse that his ancestors attended.
Bob served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson College in 1953, and served in a managerial capacity with several New Jersey companies. His daughter, Jeanne Bozicek, informed me that after Bob had retired he gave his support to a number of “projects,” of which “Unsinkable Patriot” was one.
Bob Fenner maintained an active interest in the neighborhood of his ancestors. For example, when families and a business were displaced after their building caught fire, Bob donated to the fund for their relief that had been organized by the Queen Village Neighbors’ Association. And he closely followed the attempts of local people to save an ornate 19th-century firehouse, which its owners have threatened to demolish (see the article on Engine 46 on this website). In regard to historical research, Bob photographed the old fire insurance company plaques on the houses of the alley where I live; he later sent me some literature and photos he had found to help identify them. A common thread linking these endeavors can be seen in the fact that, as his daughter informed me, Bob used to be a volunteer fire fighter and emergency-response member.
After his death, Bob Fenner’s family found in his notes the following credo: “It has been my strong feeling that during our stay here on earth, we are assigned as ‘caretakers of things.’ In my lifetime I have endeavored to take care of some people and some ‘things.’ The people know who they are (or were). The things may not be perceived as having any value, but certain of them represent the results of hard work, goodness found on earth, caring about others and those things God provided for our well being and enjoyment.” Goodbye, Bob. Your caretaking has earned the gratitude of many.
Photo: A recent shot of Robert Fenner in his office. Thanks to Jeanne Bozicek.