By Dr. Phil Stokes, Executive Director
With deepest condolences to her family and friends, I share the passing of Eileen E. Eich, cherished co-founder of our organization. Eileen departed us on January 25 following a long illness.
It stands that Penn Dixie would not be here without Eileen’s efforts. Affectionately known as ‘Mrs. Eich’ by our volunteers and staff, Eileen was simultaneously modest and proud of her decades of service to save Penn Dixie from development.
I first met Eileen by accident. One evening during my first year on the job, I was canvassing the neighborhood around Penn Dixie — also known as Steelton in Hamburg/Blasdell — to introduce myself to the community. I happened across a house with “Eich” on the mailbox.
As a new executive director in 2016, I had spent my first months poring over historical documents and business papers. Eileen’s roles as co-founder, early board member, and longtime volunteer were well-documented. Her name was everywhere. It was clear that she had been a dedicated and integral part of our history. However, since Eileen had retired some years ago, most of us newer folks had not made her acquaintance.
Was this really her home? I boldly rang the bell.
Presently, the door opened. I was greeted by a warm and friendly “Hello!” I introduced myself to the woman behind the screen door and asked if she was Eileen Eich of Penn Dixie fame. She said “Why, yes I am!” and invited me inside.
Eileen’s home reminded me of long ago visits to my grandparents’ house. Pictures on the wall, knick knacks on shelves and furniture, memories everywhere. Eileen happily shared the story of Penn Dixie’s origins while filling it in with bits and pieces of her family and personal life. She said she missed her deceased husband, Ron, who had served in the Korean War and had died in the early 2000s at a relatively young age.
Eileen kept herself busy with community work and spending time with her family. She was especially proud of her four children and many grandchildren. I have to admit that, after an extended lesson in the family tree, I was thoroughly confused by all of the the names and stories that she shared. Help arrived, however, when we were joined by her daughter Judy who had just arrived home.
Judy, like her mother, had a strong connection to our past. Roped into volunteering, Judy relayed tales of her and her mom working to get a foothold for our organization in the community. They attended meetings together, tabled at events, and created a traveling fossil display for local libraries. This was the birth of Penn Dixie.
Eileen and Judy were proud, but also nonchalant, about their efforts. “Oh yeah, we did all that” Judy summarized about the work to convince the Town of Hamburg that Penn Dixie was a place worth preserving. They kept a scrapbook, which they showed me, to commemorate the experience. ‘All that’ included countless meetings, trips to libraries and town halls, community events, and political arm twisting. It was truly an impressive grassroots effort by Eileen and her neighborhood friends Liz Gonsiorek and Sheila Kelly.
Little did they know that their work in the late 1980s and early 1990s would become what it did. But, Eileen was proud. “People come from all over the world,” she beamed. “Thousands of them come here to dig for fossils. Who would have known?”
After that evening, I met Eileen a few more times. I ran into her and her aide once or twice at local restaurants. Eileen also graced us at Penn Dixie during some of our larger fossil digs. Her family said that it always pleased Eileen to visit and see how things were coming with the organization. We also had the opportunity to interview Eileen along with co-founders Liz Gonsiorek and Sheila Kelly. You can read that story here.
Eileen Eich leaves behind an incredible legacy of leadership and community service. Our organization is grateful to her and her family for their outstanding efforts to preserve our geological treasure. We will miss you, Eileen.