James A. Drobile Sr., 81, a lawyer and the longest-serving trustee in the history of Villanova University, died of heart failure Sunday at home in Gladwyne. He was formerly a longtime resident of Wayne.

Born in Germantown, where many of his neighbors and his parents spoke German, Mr. Drobile learned the language "because his mom and dad switched from English to German when they did not want my father to know what they were saying," said his son, James Jr.

The family moved to Wayne when Mr. Drobile was 8, and he lived there until 10 years ago.

Mr. Drobile graduated from Waldron Academy in 1941 and St. Joseph's Preparatory High School in 1945. He joined the Navy as a cadet that year, and was in the Navy Reserve until being discharged in 1950.

Mr. Drobile earned a bachelor's degree in 1949 from Villanova and a master's in 1950 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - both in chemical engineering. For a few years, he was a chemical-process engineer for several firms.

He went to law school at night while working during the day as a patent agent for the Sun Oil Co. After graduating from the Temple University School of Law in 1960, he became a patent attorney for Sun Oil.

In 1961, he joined Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis, where he rose to senior counsel and founding chair of the firm's intellectual-property practice. Mr. Drobile never retired.

Mr. Drobile was first elected to Villanova's board of trustees in 1976 and served four terms. He was chairman from 1989 to 1997. Villanova awarded Mr. Drobile an honorary degree in 2005 for personifying the qualities of

veritas, unitas, caritas

(truth, unity, charity), the motto in the university's seal, for which Mr. Drobile obtained the trademark.

"My father was a great listener," his son said. "If anyone in the family had a problem, they always got good advice from him. He loved his grandchildren, but was not a babysitter. He interfaced with them."

Mr. Drobile and his family bought a vacation home at Eagles Mere in Sullivan County, Pa., in the 1960s. "He really got into the community of this little lake town," his son said. "It was like a summer camp for children and adults."

Mr. Drobile was often seen driving his Volvo station wagon, smoking his pipe, and toting dogs he rescued.

"That was a defining attribute of my father," his son said. "He was compassionate, smart and thoughtful. When I told his Volvo serviceman that my father had passed away, the man broke down and wept."

Mr. Drobile was a leader in the Penjerdel Council, a business advocacy group; a 36-year member of the Union League and vice chair of the Radnor Civil Service Commission.

In addition to his son, Mr. Drobile is survived by daughters Patricia O'Shea, Margaret Short, Cornelia Korz and Katherine; five grandchildren; and companion Maura Schubert. His wife of 32 years, Dorothy McGillicuddy Drobile, died in 1987.

A Funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. today at St. John Vianney Roman Catholic Church, Youngsford and Conshohocken State Roads, Gladwyne. Burial will be in Calvary Cemetery, West Conshohocken.

Contact staff writer Gayle Ronan Sims at 215-854-4185 or gsims@phillynews.com.