Things are already back to “normal” along the 600 block of Spring Avenue in Elkins Park, just up the road from the Elkins Park House Condominiums.
Cars passing by might pause to take a momentary glimpse of the charred shell of a house before continuing on their way. Work crews have already secured the site to prevent anyone from entering.
To many, this was simply a fire that took two lives they heard about on the news.
They didn’t know Roy and Helen Finestone, the 98-year-old couple who’d been living in that house for 59 years, raising their three children and playing an active part in the Jewish community, both locally and in Long Beach Island, N.J.
They didn’t know the man who once served as a Navy paymaster in the Sea of Japan during World War II before going on to become a certified public accountant; he later privately published two books about his life.
They never met the woman who played the piano and used to excel on the tennis court, often beating players up to 20 years her junior.
Their son, Richard Finestone, who became his father’s CPA partner until the elder man’s retirement, spoke of how incredible they were. “There’s a deep love from all the family,” he said. “We’re all hurting right now. But they led a great life.”
The family gathered to celebrate those lives on July 25 during a graveside ceremony at Forest Hills/Shalom Memorial Park in Huntingdon Valley, with Cantor Malcolm James presiding. He’s the husband of Blanche Finestone James, the Finestones’ oldest daughter.
According to Cheltenham Township Deputy Fire Marshal Timothy Schuck, what was later determined to be an accidental electrical fire broke out in the Finestone’s bedroom early on July 23. The fire department was notified at 4:38 a.m. and, with the help of neighboring fire companies and close to 150 firefighters, had the blaze under control by 6:54 a.m.
Shortly before that, they discovered the bodies of the couple.
Down the block, Ken and Pauline Kretschmer were asleep when the fire engines first arrived. Ken Kretschmer, a retired fireman himself, got up and ventured up the block to see what was going on.
“I knew how bad it was as soon as I saw it,” he said. “I was real upset when I saw what house it was. They were nice people. They used to walk down to the mailbox all the time. But he hasn’t done it in a few years.”
“She was a gentle person, just so nice,” Pauline Kretschmer added. “I haven’t seen him for a long while. He wasn’t as active as she was. I gave him a ride a couple of times. Such a nice couple.”
Richard Finestone said that “Judaism was a huge part of their lives. Both my mom’s and dad’s parents were immigrants — from Russia and from Austria-Hungary.”
At Long Beach Island, where the Finestones would spend their summers, “they used to host an annual Shabbat Kiddush,” said Rabbi Michael Jay of the Jewish Community Center of Long Beach Island. “The whole family would come down to be a part of it. I know they were longtime members. I’m only in my fourth year here. My first couple of years I know whenever they came to services, they always came together.
“Roy did the haftarah. He just literally opened the book and chanted it beautifully. They only came in once last year, but before that these were vibrant active members of this community, which exists in part because of them. Whatever we have here they helped to create.”
The Finestone family requested any donations in honor of Roy and Helen Finestone be made to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
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I am so so sad — I am a friend of their granddaughter, Annie Moyal, and, to me, this is a tragedy. But let’s turn it around to the positive, if that be possible — they passed away together at a wonderful age and, from what I hear, most wonderful people. May they RIP.
As their mailman, in the past , and their friend, I feel deep sorrow. They made me feel cherished, always time for a bissell of food or drink. They would greet me at their door with welcoming arms and smiles and stories. They are missed.