Oliver L. Roach, 86, formerly of Willow Grove, an Air Force reservist who dedicated himself to community service after seeing wounded soldiers recovering at a military hospital, died Thursday, Sept. 19, of renal failure at his home in Alloway, N.J.
In the late 1960s, Mr. Roach was injured in an accident at the Willow Grove Air Station, where he worked as a stockroom attendant. He was sent for treatment to the Valley Forge Military Hospital in Phoenixville, which was filled with Vietnam War veterans, many of them high school dropouts.
“I spent two weeks in that bed, surrounded by guys with their legs blown off, and I made a promise that when I got out of there, I’d come back and do something for them,” he told the Doylestown Daily Intelligencer in 1971.
He arranged for entertainers to visit the hospital and took busloads of the men to the Uptown Theater for concerts. He also took the local veterans to Abington Senior High School, hoping they would be motivated to return to school.
“One day I was walking down the hall there, and a black youth stopped me and said he needed help, that a lot of his friends in Crestmont were dropping out of school and copping out on drugs,” he told the Intelligencer. Crestmont is southwest of Willow Grove.
That conversation was the impetus for Mr. Roach to form Citizens for Progress, a Willow Grove nonprofit, and the Crestmont Halfway House and Mobil Drug Alert, facilities designed to raise awareness about substance abuse and to help people in addiction find recovery.
The programs offered counseling, temporary medical treatment, and weekly rap sessions for youth.
Mr. Roach also set up the Crestmont Athletic Association to provide recreation for underprivileged young people.
“He has a talent for helping others and he uses it,” Richard Souter told the Intelligencer. Mr. Roach helped Souter kick his heroin habit, and Souter became his assistant at the halfway house.
In 1971, Mr. Roach estimated that the program had responded to 1,600 calls since its inception in the late 1960s. Two to three dozen people in addiction had gotten clean.
“It sounds small,” he told the newspaper, “but it’s easier to get hooked than unhooked.”
Born in Steelton, near Harrisburg, Mr. Roach graduated from Steelton High School and moved to the Philadelphia suburbs in 1966. He was a longtime Air Force reservist who saw six months of active duty during the Persian Gulf War.
Mr. Roach was known for helping to raise money for youth groups by sponsoring gospel concerts at the Keswick Theater in Glenside. The last one was in 2014.
A firm believer in civil rights, he organized buses to take locals to various marches on Washington, attended several speeches by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and committed himself to inclusion and diversity.
He believed that substance abuse, in some cases, had roots in societal inequities and was quietly angry about that.
“A majority of drug problems among black people are caused by the lack of love shown to them when it comes to housing, education, finding a job,” he told the Intelligencer. “It’s enough to drive anyone to it. I’ve seen it happen over and over, right here in these suburbs.”
In 1989, he organized three “Say No to Drugs” walks through Crestmont, North Hills, and Glenside. The walks were sponsored by the Optimist Club of Lower Montgomery County, which he had helped to found.
He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Lara G. Roach; daughters Trina Roach and Ronda Wells; son Oliver L. Allen; 10 grandchildren; a brother; and a sister.
A viewing starting at 8 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 28, will be followed by a 10 a.m. life celebration at Salem Baptist Church, 2741 Woodland Rd., Abington. Interment will be at 10 a.m. Monday, Sept. 30, in the William Howard Day Cemetery, Steelton.