The Martinsville High School community lost one of its greatest supporters with the passing of John Fenwick “Finney” Edelen Sr. on Wednesday. He was 92.
Family and friends recall Edelen as having boundless energy throughout his life, and he devoted much of that energy to serving others. He is perhaps best known for his 31 years of volunteer service to the Martinsville High School band and enthusiastic support of Bulldog sports. Martinsville fans may remember him for rollerblading in front of the stands waving a Bulldog flag at athletic events, even though he was well into his 60s at the time.
Edelen first became involved as a band booster when his daughter, Andrea Powell, joined the marching band as a student at Martinsville High School. When he saw all the work that went into transporting the instruments for away games, he began helping by carrying the equipment in his horse trailer. That began years of volunteer service that included giving his “time, money, and equipment” to help the band, said his son Jay Edelen.
“It was a labor of love,” Jay Edelen said. “That’s just how he was — when he got involved in something, he would dive headfirst into it.”
Even after all four of his children had graduated from Martinsville High School and moved on, he recalled, “He just was so involved by then, he kept doing it as long as he possibly could.”
As a student, Andrea Powell participated in both the marching band and as a cheerleader. She fondly recalled her father attending all of her games.
“It was great for me to have Dad there for the away games,” she said. “My friends loved him. People enjoyed him. And he loved it and loved helping. He loved the Bulldogs.”
Finney Edelen would even travel with the band to state and regional championships, carrying their equipment “to the other end of the state,” recalled Bob McMillan, who directed the MHS band from 1965 to 2000.
“He was an avid backer of the band and the athletic programs. Anything Martinsville High School did, he was standing behind us,” McMillan said. “He was near and dear to the kids and everyone who knew him. I grew to love him very much as a brother and a friend.”
Jay Edelen said his father not only went to the games, “he went to the band practices and would help the band directors. You can imagine corralling a bunch of 15- and 16-year-olds. He would keep them headed on the right path and encourage them.”
In addition to his volunteer work, Edelen was a constant cheerleader for the Bulldogs.
“He had a great spirit. Sometimes when the score gets low and team gets behind, spirits get a little low. If the kids got real low at a game, he would get up there, just like a cheerleader, and try to get them riled up,” McMillan said. “He’d go running over in front of the band and start hollering at them and jumping up and down. He would do his best to get everyone going again. I think everyone really loved him for his support and enthusiasm.”
No one could beat Finney Edelen’s school spirit, even though he was not from the area and had not attended Martinsville High School. He was born on April 14, 1927, to James Gough Edelen Sr. and Genevieve Hilton Edelen of Baltimore. It was the furniture business — and meeting his future wife — that led him to move to Martinsville in the 1950s.
After two years of Army service, Edelen started his career selling furniture hardware for the business started by his father, J.G. Edelen Company. He frequently made sales trips to southern Virginia, where he met his future, Nancy Lackey. After moving to Martinsville, he continued to work in the family business for 50 years, establishing the Martinsville office of the Baltimore-based company in 1997. J.G. Edelen Co. has been going strong for 96 years now and is still in the family, Jay Edelen said.
Finney Edelen was an avid sports fan and had played ice hockey in his youth, so it was not that big a stretch for him to learn how to rollerblade in his older years. Andrea Powell and her husband got him into rollerblading for the first time.
“We lived in Burlington, Vermont, at that time, and there was a beautiful bike path along Lake Champlain. We thought he would like rollerblading, because he had liked to ice skate,” she said. “He took off, and he was a natural, of course, because he grew up ice skating.”
It was after his retirement that Edelen began rollerblading at playoff games. McMillan recalled the first time he saw his friend skating down the track waving a big Bulldog flag.
“It was fantastic. He got everyone pumped up. He just amazed everybody with his energy level,” McMillan said. “I wish I could’ve borrowed some of that energy.”
In the mid-80s, McMillan started the tradition of giving the Edelen Spirit Award in his honor to the band member with the most school spirit and energy. Former Martinsville High School band director Kevin Lewis received the award in 1988, when he was a student and played in Jazz Band with Edelen’s son Eddie. When Lewis returned to his alma mater to teach, Finney Edelen continued to volunteer and help however he could.
“Mr. Edelen had more energy than anyone I’d ever met. He was just tireless and always coming by and checking on the band and helping out,” Lewis said. “There was no question that his motives were all about supporting the Bulldogs and the band, and providing whatever energy and enthusiasm he could to make them better than they were before.”
Lewis recalled there was “a lot of respect and mutual admiration from the kids to him and back, because they cared about the same thing. The kids learned from his example what it means to be committed and show up and support something you care about.”
Edelen’s granddaughter Elizabeth Edelen went on to play in the marching band under Lewis. However, by that time, health problems caused by an injury had slowed down the man known for always being on the move.
“He had an injury ice skating on his 79th birthday. We were in Greensboro at the skating rink down there, and he hit his head,” Jay Edelen said. It was not until several weeks later that they discovered he had bleeding on the brain and had to have brain surgery. Eventually, he had a stroke as a result of his condition and was left paralyzed on the left side.
“Even after his accident, I remember visiting him in the hospital, and the first thing he asked me was ‘How many you got in the band this year?’” Lewis said. “That’s how ever-present he was in his support.”
Finney Edelen continued to enjoy Bulldog games when his health allowed him to attend. He could only attend a few games per year, but the Bulldogs still remembered his support.
“About a year after he had his accident, I wheeled him up to the stands, and the whole crowd stood up and cheered for him,” Jay Edelen said.
When Finney Edelen couldn’t make it to the band performances, the Martinsville High School marching band came to him. Once in 2009 and again in 2015, Lewis brought the entire band to the street where Edelen lived to give him a special performance in his driveway.
“It was epic. That was just a super touching moment when we saw the band marching down the street,” Jay Edelen recalled.
McMillan was also there to witness the show and Finney Edelen’s reaction. “He loved it. It did my heart good to see him so thrilled and pumped up that they would come out and play for him,” he said.
Lewis said a video of the performance went viral on Facebook, at least by small-town standards, garnering 57,000 views. “That shows the relationship he had with the kids and the community as a whole,” he said.
Finney Edelen was an active member and volunteer at St Joseph Catholic Church, ushering and maintaining church grounds for many years. A devoted grandfather to his nine grandchildren, he enjoyed trips to Vermont, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Texas to visit them, his family said.
Jay Edelen recalled his father as “a great family man” and “the type of person who never met a stranger. He could talk to anybody, from the CEO of a local corporation to the guy who swept the floor there, and he would be just as friendly to either one of them.”
Especially in his father’s later years, he added, “I just feel blessed that I’ve been able to have my career here and see him multiple times a week.”
Kim Barto Meeks is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at 276-638-8801.