Asmussen | Nonagenerian gardener still going strong

Aug. 22—Everybody has a story. The key is to ask, listen and take good notes.

This space has been filled with 52 of them during the past year:

* The local firefighter who successfully dabbles in real estate.

* The great Shorty Eichelberger realizing her dream of seeing the University of Illinois host the Big Ten softball tournament.

* The Eastern Illinois University graduate elevated to the top spot at her company.

* And today: the nimble and nice Urbana great-grandmother with the lovely garden.

That would be Faith Zoll, 90 years young. She lives in Urbana's Landis Farm subdivision, where she tends to her flowers, vegetables ("just enough to make a nice salad"), poodles Chloe and Sadie and cat Middie.

There are other critters hanging around the yard, too: raccoons, possums, woodchucks and lots of birds.

"I love all animals," Zoll said.

Born April 3, 1933, in New York City, she had a difficult childhood. Money was tight — it was the Great Depression, after all. When Zoll was 6 months old, her mother left her with another family, the Yales, in Aurora, N.Y., with the promise of a quick return. It never happened.

Aurora is 255 miles from New York City.

The Yales "kept me and told me if I was going to live with them at the age of 5, I had to work," Zoll said. "They had a farm, and they were very poor."

Zoll was the youngest of seven children. She finished high school and at age 17 "walked away from" the farm.

Her foster father gave her $1, which she used to buy a bus ticket to Syracuse, N.Y. She stayed with a distant family member, got a job and never returned to her original foster family.

"All I wanted was to make some money because I didn't have any," Faith said.

Perfect match

Zoll met her future husband, Robert, in Syracuse.

"He was the apple of my eye," she said.

They got married in Denver then spent the next two-plus decades traveling.

Robert was in the U.S. Air Force, where he worked as a jet mechanic. His duties sent them to Okinawa, Japan; London; Germany; Turkey; and the Holy Land.

He finished his military time at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.

Their daughter, Margaret Ann, was born in West Point, N.Y. Their sons, John and the late Robert David, were born in Rome, N.Y.

John now resides in Champaign, and Margaret has a home between Urbana and St. Joseph.

Besides helping to raise their kids, Faith had a career in the business office at Carle Foundation Hospital. She was there for 15 years.

Champaign-Urbana became their home.

"When Robert retired, we settled here," Faith said. "I love it."

They traveled extensively after Robert left the military. Hawaii was a favorite destination.

"I could go on forever and tell you all the beautiful things I've seen," Faith said.

She has always been a fan of shopping, whether it is at Water Tower Place in Chicago or Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.

"Anywhere there is big stores," Faith said.

Post-military, Robert went to work for the Kerasotes movie theater chain as a district supervisor.

In 1989, while working in Buffalo, N.Y., he suffered a heart attack and passed away. He was only 56. Gone way too soon.

Staying informed

Faith watches the news, animal shows and sports on TV. She pays attention to the Illinois football and basketball teams. Her late son was an Illini supporter.

The spry nonagenerian takes daily walks, mostly close to home.

Faith has a small circle of friends who help her with errands and maintaining the home.

Technology is not her thing. She used a computer during her Carle days but doesn't have one at home. No cellphone, either.

"I am very much the old-fashioned way of doing things," Faith said.