RURAL PENFIELD — Marietta Foellner frequently called her late husband “Tigger” because of his boundless energy and persistent positive attitude.
She never heard him complain. Not after undergoing surgery. Not after breaking his wrist playing flag football. Never.
“A huge, huge light just went out,” she said of her husband, Dr. Richard Foellner, who died last Tuesday at age 79 at their rural Penfield home.
Dr. Foellner wouldn’t have been searching for something to do had he retired. He always had to be doing something.
“He had an absolute passion for the woods,” Marietta said. “He was like a Johnny Appleseed.”
The Foellners had a Christmas tree farm at their home. He enjoyed being outdoors, working with the trees or in the garden and loved showing his grandchildren how to do things there. He was also a beekeeper.
He had a passion for flying and frequently took his wife on surprise dates that meant flying to some location.
“He was a masterful pilot,” Marietta said. “He was instrument flight-rated. We had several airplanes that took us all over the place, both the East Coast and West Coast and even down to the Virgin Islands.”
She said on three occasions they experienced engine failure but were able to land safely.
Friends and colleagues remembered Dr. Foellner as a man who was full of life and cared about his patients as people, not just clients.
The general practitioner based much of his practice at The Paxton Clinic of Gibson Area Hospital.
Despite his age, he remained active and had no plans to retire, longtime nurse Pauline Bazzell said.
“On Tuesday he had a full day of patients and three nursing homes” to visit, Bazzell said.
He regularly saw patients in Paxton plus one day a month in Hoopeston and every Wednesday in Cissna Park.
“He loved his profession,” she said, adding he hoped to continue working for a long time. “He said, ‘I plan to keep going for another 20 years. How about you?’”
Bazzell counted Dr. Foellner as her boss and friend since he started seeing patients in Paxton in February 1973.
“He was a very good physician. I respected him a lot,” she said. “Just a good guy, very personable. If he didn’t know you, he would (still) say something to you. He had a special relationship with a majority of his patients.
She said the drive to his rural home was his way of getting his release after a long day of work.
Three children and three stepchildren survive him.
An Army veteran, he was a lieutenant in the Medical Corps and the U.S. Army Reserve. He earned a chemistry degree from Gettysburg College, Pa., and graduated from the Chicago School of Osteopathic Medicine. Marietta Foellner said when the Iraq War broke out, her husband volunteered to be an Army medic. The Army accepted him, but he was unable to fulfill the obligation due to what his wife called “circumstances beyond his control.”
“He was a patriot on steroids,” Marietta said.
One of his favorite memories was when he was able to participate in a flag football camp with Penn State Coach Joe Paterno in 2007 at age 65 — a present his wife had bought him.
For months he trained for the game and lost 30 pounds.
Dr. Foellner broke his wrist in the first quarter but didn’t let anyone know and kept playing. He was named the most valuable player.
Marietta Foellner said she was sitting in the locker room after the game with her husband when Paterno’s son, Jay Paterno, came in.
“He went up to Rich and he said, ‘You are one hell of an athlete.’ It was absolutely marvelous.”
In addition to the broken wrist, Dr. Foellner hadn’t let any of the camp officials know he had undergone hip replacement surgery nine months earlier.
She called her husband a life learner who enjoyed mentoring medical students.
“These students would come up to me and say, ‘Your husband is awesome. I am learning so much from him. He’s so busy I get to” learn so much from watching him, she said.
She said they didn’t take long vacations because he wanted to get back to his patients. She said every morning they prayed for his patients, their family and the nation.
Paxton Mayor Bill Ingold said his father, Harold, recruited Dr. Foellner and Dr. Charles Olaf to come to Paxton from Pennsylvania.
“My dad actually flew to Pennsylvania to recruit Dr. Foellner and Dr. Olaf to come to Paxton, and they stayed at mom and dad’s house until they could find suitable housing for their families to come here,” Ingold said.
Dr. Foellner remained active with Paxton Community Hospital until its closure in 1987, and Ingold called them “very supportive.”
Like many, Ingold counted Dr. Foellner as his doctor and a friend.
“A lot of his advice and the way he talked to us can’t be measured and won’t be forgotten,” he said, adding the doctor would talk to his mom on an office visit as if he were talking to his own mother.
He wasn’t strictly business and would ask his patients how they were doing and get to know them.
“It was just like talking to family,” Ingold said.
Ingold said he helped Dr. Foellner fix things around his house a couple of times and went pheasant hunting with him.
Sally Wolf, former office manager for Dr. Foellner’s medical clinic, said her family and his family became close friends and would often vacation together.
Her son, Kevin, credited him with saving his life after a bee sting and Kevin went into anaphylactic shock.
“I had called the office, and it was about lunch time,” Sally Wolf said. “We put Kevin in the car and drove into town. Rich was standing there as we walked in the door with an alcohol swab in one hand and a needle in the other. By that time, Kevin was so swollen up that his ears were about an inch thick and his eyes were swollen closed and he was gasping for
Whenever their families vacationed together, they always had to take photos designating the date. Sometimes it just meant holding up fingers.
“Other times we might end up all laying on the ground in shapes with our bodies to designate the date,” she said. “There was always a lot of laughter.”
In a statement, Gibson Area Hospital CEO Rob Schmitt said Dr. Foellner served the Paxton community and surrounding area for more than 40 years.
“He was an outstanding physician and a tremendous supporter of the Paxton community. His patients really loved him a lot. They stood by him.
“He’s going to be greatly missed by this organization, by the community and definitely by his patients and his family.”
Schmitt said he had known Dr. Foellner for 17 years.
Marietta Foellner said her husband was named the Rural Physician of the Year in 2014 by the Rural Health Association.