Robert H. Forney Jr. grew up in Elizabethtown and celebrated his 100th birthday on Sunday, April 9, with family at the Masonic Heath Care Center.
While growing up in Elizabethtown, he helped his father run the Chrysler-Plymouth dealership he ran on North Market Street, just north of the Conoy Creek.
One notable sale that Forney helped his father with was the 1937 sale of a Chrysler Imperial Airflow limousine to chocolate magnate Milton S. Hershey. The Hershey Auto Museum has a copy of the bill of sale, which shows it sold for $5,245 (minus $995 for the trade-in of a Cadillac sedan).
“My uncle was a cousin of M.S. Hershey,” Forney explained in an interview shortly before his 100th birthday. Hershey was especially interested in the innovative, streamlined automobile, which was the first car to be designed in a wind tunnel.
“This was a big thing for the Chrysler Corporation to have this new, modern automobile,” Forney said. And when Hershey learned that someone in his extended family was a dealer, he was happy to keep the sale in the family.
Forney and his father went to Hershey so the businessman could custom order his car.
“We went up there with books of pictures of this automobile,” Forney said. “M.S. Hershey had that car built to order.”
The car was delivered to Elizabethtown; Forney said his father had a day or two to prepare it for delivery to Hershey. He had it parked on Market Street with a sign saying it was made for M.S. Hershey.
“I’m sure that helped his business,” Forney said.
But Forney left Elizabethtown as a young adult. After graduating from Elizabethtown High School, he spent one year studying at Elizabethtown College before transferring to West Chester State Teachers College (now West Chester University), where he graduated in 1941.
At the time, the United States was not yet in World War II. But Congress had passed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, the first peacetime draft in American history, in anticipation of an emergency.
“When I graduated from college, I’d been deferred until graduation,” Forney said. Rather than waiting for conscription, Forney volunteered for the Navy, which he entered on June 8, 1941.
Forney was sent to Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Florida and first studied to become a pilot. But after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States officially entered the war and the Navy needed to dramatically speed up its pilot training.
Forney said he needed more time to learn landings and although the Navy would have taken the time to teach him under normal circumstances, they needed to get pilots who could land on an aircraft carrier as quickly as possible. So only the most promising pilot candidates remained in the program and Forney was released back into the draft pool.
Forney said the captain of the air station told him, “You’re fortunate. At this very moment here at Jacksonville, we’re forming a new naval facility.”
That new facility was a school to train mechanics to maintain and repair airplanes. He spent a year and a half administering this school.
But the Navy wanted to rotate its personnel, so since Forney had spent so much time on ground duty, it was time to go to sea. He was ordered to report to Norfolk, Va.
“When I got to Norfolk, the ship I was assigned to was no longer in service,” Forney said. This meant waiting a month for a new assignment, which took him to San Juan, Puerto Rico, the headquarters for submarines for the Caribbean Sea and South Atlantic Ocean. He was stationed there serving the submarine fleet until the end of the war.
After the war, Forney returned to Elizabethtown. His father’s business was facing trouble; automakers were not allowed to make cars for civilian use during the war. In addition, a flood had gone through the garage, causing major damage.
Forney said he was not especially interested in auto sales, but he helped his father rebuild the business.
“I owed him. He put me through college,” Forney said, adding that he thought, “Here’s a time my father needs my help.”
He stayed to help his father for 10 years. During that time, he got to know Virginia Resh, who was living in Wrightsville and working for her father, who owned a marina on the Susquehanna River. They got married and moved to Coral Gables, Fla., a suburb of Miami where they lived for 49 years.
Forney said although he had been stationed in Jacksonville, just south of the Georgia state line, he was determined not to live there again.
“I said, ‘We’re not going to stop in Jacksonville; we’re going all the way down to the end of Florida. … We’re going to enjoy boating where boating is really boating,’” Forney said.
Forney spent 39 years in the Navy Reserves; he rose to the rank of lieutenant commander. He also was an insurance agent of New York Life for about 30 years.
When his mother died, she left behind a house in Elizabethtown with no one to take care of it.
“For 20 years, we lived in both places,” spending summers in Pennsylvania and winters in Florida.
But eventually, they decided to live full-time in Pennsylvania so they could be around people they’ve known their whole lives.
And after all that, Bob and Jinny Forney welcomed many relatives, friends and neighbors to his 100th birthday celebration on Sunday, June 9.