The Wonderful Life of Jon Fox
Bedford Falls had George Bailey. And Abington had Jon Fox.
Fans of the classic movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” remember George Bailey as the Bedford Falls hometown boy who devoted himself to helping others and was ultimately rewarded when his countless acts of love and generosity were returned in kind. Friends of Abington stalwart Jon Fox will remember him in much the same way.
Fox, one of the most popular and durable elected officials in modern Montgomery County history, died Sunday night at the age of 70. He was the Abington-born son of a prominent family who rejected a life of privilege to pursue public service and help others. The people he aided repeatedly flocked to the polls to elect him to office, eventually sending him to the United States Congress for two terms. He met and conferred with U.S. presidents, ambassadors, and famous people from across the globe. Yet he preferred the quiet company of friends and neighbors in Abington.
Most of us know how to spot a typical politician: someone looking over your shoulder searching for another hand to shake, another vote to secure. Many politicians promptly forget the people who supported them, content with the prestige and perks of office. For these officeholders, constituent service is handed off to a low-paid staffer, with instructions to do the bare minimum and move along to the next request.
Jon Fox rejected that ethos. Serving in local, county, state and federal office, he shunned contentious partisan fights, preferring the quiet satisfaction of helping people when government stood in their way. His life, his desk, even his car was a messy mix of papers gathered from people in need who trusted that Jon would come through for them. Despite the collection of clutter, he usually did.
Service to others came early for Jon Fox. As a young man, he served in the U.S. Air Force Reserve for six years, building a brimming sense of patriotism that fueled his fervent belief in American exceptionalism. He soon joined the Republican Party and stood by its leaders in good times and bad.
His first exposure to government was working for the General Services Administration in Washington, D.C. Then, after graduating from the first-ever law school class of Delaware Law School in Wilmington, Delaware, Jon passed the Pennsylvania bar and began working as an Assistant District Attorney in Montgomery County. He prosecuted dangerous criminals, volunteered to help battered women, and built a strong alliance with local police. He later established a private law practice, where — unlike almost any other lawyer — he routinely made house calls, helping local senior citizens and those with minor legal problems right at their own kitchen table.
Jon’s first elected office was as a Township Commissioner, representing the Jenkintown and Baederwood sections of Abington. He won votes by sheer persistence and good nature. Once elected, he stepped up his effort to an even higher level, particularly focusing on the needs of local senior citizens. He served two terms and won the respect of leaders twice his age.
In 1984, he earned statewide attention by winning an Abington-Rockledge state legislative seat that had been held by the Democratic Party for several years. In that campaign, he knocked on thousands of doors, worked 18-hour days, and won by a margin of more than two to one. Later, in 1991, Montgomery County residents elected him to be County Commissioner and then, on the second try, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1994, where he served two terms.
He was the son of business titan William Fox, a driving force behind several Abington-area institutions including founding local radio station WIBF, the Fox Pavilion (now known as the Pavilion) and local apartment buildings Benson Manor, Benson East, and Foxcroft. Jon’s mother Elainne was the spark of the family and Jon inherited her enthusiasm and flair for relating to others. The whole Fox family, including sister Caren and brother Larry, quickly learned that Jon had a knack for politics and government.
After graduating from nearby Cheltenham High School, Jon went to Penn State University, where he became a cheerleader, urging on the massive crowds that flock to the Nittany Lion football games. He revered Penn State for the rest of his life. While he was always willing to put a Republican bumper sticker on his car, Jon’s favorite sticker was non-political. It read “if God’s not a Penn State fan, why is the sky blue and white?”
Jon was Jewish but, for many years, he dressed as Santa to bring toys to local children. He had a habit of running late, and one December day, while racing between toy deliveries, he didn’t have time to change out of the Santa outfit. Driving down Easton Road, wearing the red hat and beard, he stopped at a red light, just behind a car sporting a Penn State decal. Jon didn’t know the driver, but he got out of his car, walked up to the other car and tapped on the glass. The man behind the wheel rolled down the window, mouth agape at the white-bearded visage. Jon leaned in and whispered, “even Santa Claus roots for Penn State.”
Jon had one true love of his life, his wife Judi whom he met while she was working for Jon’s father in the 1980s. She cared for him like no other and her love and devotion gave Jon the stability to continue his work for fellow Republicans, people who needed legal help, or just about anyone with a problem.
Jon passed away after battling multiple forms of cancer over the last few years. Despite the toll of debilitating treatments, he continued his legal practice, representing clients in local courts even as he grew weaker.
Jon’s hope for the future was focused on his son, Will — named for Jon’s father. Jon loved Will with the blooming passion of the proudest of fathers. His gentle guidance and doting tenderness encircled Will in an extravagant embrace.
Most members of Congress leave behind a legacy of laws. But Jon’s is a heritage of hope. Like the fictional George Bailey, Jon was beloved by his hometown and his success was built by advancing the success of others. His encouragement of friends was boundless, his optimism untamed.
In his seven decades of life, Jon rarely rested. There was always another person to help, another problem to solve, another burden to share.
Now, he rests.
Abington native Mark R. Weaver was the political strategist for Jon Fox’s first major election in 1984. He is the author of the book “A Wordsmith’s Work,” which includes a chapter about Jon Fox and his family. He is a long-time family friend. Twitter: @MarkRWeaver