Life Remembered: Assembly Hall project chief recalled as good leader

CHAMPAIGN — It's somehow fitting that the last act of one of Champaign-Urbana's greatest builders and engineers was to throw a huge party.

More than 100 people were gathered at Dick Foley's house for a family reunion Saturday afternoon when the news came that their 87-year-old patriarch had died.

Mr. Foley had been in Carle Foundation Hospital since June 30 when he suffered a major stroke while weeding his tomato plants.

"We were celebrating (Saturday) and the phone rang with the news. It was bittersweet," said his wife of 63 years, Joanne Bresee Foley who was surrounded by lots of family, including her five children, their spouses, and 17 grandchildren.

Family members had known for days that Mr. Foley would not survive the stroke, which came out of the blue after a full week that included two golf games and having mowed the lawn twice, his wife said.

He was getting their 50-year-old home in the Lake Park subdivision south of Champaign in tip-top shape for the Bresee family reunion, which he had been planning for a year. Family from all over the country were in town for the party.

"He even had a spreadsheet for who was going to be here," said son-in-law Dave Bell of Vandalia.

"He had planned the family reunion to the point that he had a checking account where he was the only signer," said family friend and business associate John Meek of Bloomington while laughing.

Meek worked for 40 years with Mr. Foley at Felmley-Dickerson Co., one of central Illinois' pre-eminent commercial and industrial construction firms. Mr. Foley and Meek's late father, James Meek, co-owned the firm from 1969 to the time of Mr. Foley's retirement in 1990. It was the only place he ever worked.

"Dick Foley was a good leader for the Felmley-Dickerson company. He was a very strong Christian man, a very principled man," said Meek.

A native of Paris, Ill., Mr. Foley helped Paris High School win a state championship in boys' basketball in 1943. He then came to the University of Illinois, where he majored in civil engineering and played basketball. After a semester, he joined the Army and served in the signal corps, stationed in Paris, France.

After his WWII service, he returned in 1946 to the UI, where he continued to play basketball. He was a top reserve on Harry Combes' 1949 team that won a Big Ten title and finished third in the NCAA tournament.

"Harry always said Dick was one of the headiest players," said Ted Beach, a teammate and fraternity brother of Mr. Foley at Illinois. "He could see things on the floor and get the ball to the right place. Dick and Jim Cottrell of Champaign are probably two of the smartest players I've played with."

Fresh out of the UI in 1949 with his engineering degree, Mr. Foley joined the firm he would eventually head, a company known for such Champaign-Urbana landmarks as the Assembly Hall, the Electrical Engineering building, the Education Building, the south addition of the Illini Union, the Swanlund building, Bank of Illinois and Carle Foundation Hospital buildings. Felmley-Dickerson also built buildings on Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul and the Quaker Oats chewy granola division in Danville, among others.

For almost 50 years, Mr. Foley was sought after by all kinds of groups wanting to hear about the construction of the mushroom-shaped arena now known as the State Farm Center. Fittingly, his retirement party in 1990 was held in the Assembly Hall. Mr. Foley was scheduled to give that presentation to Meek's Bloomington Rotary club this week.

Daughter Ann Hanson of Deerfield said one of her favorite memories of her father involved a visit to the hall so he could check on a particular phase of the construction.

"I was 9 and my brother was 6 and we went up through the center stairway to the top of the Assembly Hall with him and got to go out on the roof. When we got home, our mom was not very happy," Hanson said, recalling the view of the campus and the surrounding prairie as if the rooftop visit had been days, not 50 years, ago.

"I don't think OSHA would approve," said Richard Foley of Anchorage, Alaska, while laughing.

Kent Brown, UI sports information director, said Mr. Foley had several meetings with the architects for the renovation of the State Farm Center.

"They were very excited to have the resource of someone like Dick to talk to in regards to the original construction of the building," Brown said, adding Mr. Foley's input was all the more unique given his great basketball career at the UI.

Richard Foley said while the Assembly Hall may be his father's most visible physical monument in town, perhaps a greater one was his service on the Champaign school board from 1966 to 1975.

"He was the president of the school board when Unit 4 was ordered to integrate the schools and bus students. He did that with a lot of grace and poise and fairness in a way that got it done with a minimum of turmoil," he said.

"He was a mediator and he always was looking for the middle of the road and the compromise and the common ground in every issue, not just the busing issue," Hanson said of her father.

Richard Foley said their father's ability to negotiate labor contracts with construction workers also served him well when bargaining with teachers. "People on the other side considered him honest and fair and transparent."

The Foleys have long been active in the First Presbyterian Church of Champaign, where they married in 1949, and through their church, the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship Conference. They went to Kona, Hawaii, for many years after Mr. Foley's retirement to work with other Christian missionaries affiliated with Youth With a Mission.

Last fall, Mr. Foley took part in an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., with other World War II veterans to see the World War II Memorial.

Struggling with just the right gift to give their father for his 80th birthday, his proud children established a scholarship at the UI in his name to benefit students from Edgar County. Seven have received money to date.

"It wasn't like he was trying to build a long resume," said Richard Foley. "It's just something he did seemingly without effort."

The Foley family is having an open house from 2 to 5 p.m. today at their home at 32 Willow Court, C, for folks who would like to continue the celebration of Mr. Foley's life.

Topics (1):People

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