“Isn’t that Coach Foster?”
“Yep. He was my Dad’s football coach and I’ve heard a hundred stories about him.”
“Didn’t he wrestle a bear once?”
“That’s what they say.”
“I also heard that instead of driving to school he jumps in the St. Joe River in the morning and swims all the way here from South Bend.”
The conversation would end abruptly, as silence descended over the room the moment Bob Foster looked up from his newspaper to address the class from his wooden desk covered in piles of old worksheets. While all of the other teachers spent the first day handing out syllabi and discussing grading scales, Mr. Foster cut right to the chase and led with the real stuff. In his characteristically gruff voice, he’d set the tone with Foster’s Four Rules of Life.
Rule #1 – Get a job, any job.
Rule #2 – No kids out of wedlock.
Rule #3 – Stay out of jail.
Rule #4 – Nothing good happens after 10:00 pm.
How could you not fall in love with a guy with that kind of opening act? And there were plenty more where that came from. If a kid walked in late to class, Foster would quip, “Long line at the autograph booth?” If feeling exasperated, he would exclaim, “Good Night Irene!” And a pencil was never a pencil—test days called for getting out your “writing implement.”
It’s safe to say that every Buchanan grad from the last 40 years has a Foster story they like to tell their friends over a cold drink after a Friday night home game. He was a true hometown legend and one of the last of the Old Guard. He was brash. He was old school. He was a fighter. He was the stereotypical combination of history teacher and football coach. He was a tough sonuvabitch. And he was ours.
My favorite Foster stories, before I had my own to share, were narrated by my Dad and his buddies over the many campfires of my youth. My Dad left Buchanan to live in Alaska his sophomore and junior years of high school and, when he returned in the fall of his senior year, Foster was one of the new football coaches along with Frank Mucha. Not knowing anything about him but wanting to play for the Bucks, my Dad remembers Foster’s speech at the first team meeting went something like this: “I’m looking for a noseguard. You don’t need brains to play this position. I just need a guy who won’t come more than two feet off the ground and won’t mind his knuckles always bloody.” My Dad thought to himself, “I can do that, “ and so began the first of three Dodson brothers to play as noseguards under the leadership of Coach Foster.
The football stories would always include the time the Bucks were playing Lakeshore at home. The Lancers drove two fan buses onto the Bucks practice field and were blaring noise makers out of the windows as the guys in maroon lined up to stretch out before the game. Foster methodically paced up the rows of his young men growling under his breath, “Look at those goddamn rich kids. Are you gonna let those rich kids come onto your field like that?” His mutterings lit a fire under his country boys and, by the time the game started, they were like bulldogs racing to break their chains and let loose on the intruders. It was a rough game too, and my Dad broke his left hand on a kickoff play. The adrenaline must’ve been running high though, because he finished the game and didn’t realize he’d broken it in three places until he visited the team doctor the next day.
When the next Friday came around, he lined up to play against Cass but the referee kicked him off the field and wouldn’t let him play with a cast on his hand. To a senior football player, missing a game was akin to missing a leg and he was devastated. He walked into school that following Monday and Foster motioned him into his room. He said, “You know Dodson, when I was playing football in high school I broke my hand and had to wear a cast. I wanted to play so badly that I had my brother use a hacksaw to cut the cast off over the kitchen sink so I could play that next week. Anyway, I just wanted you to know that.” I’m sure you can guess what happened that night at home with my Dad and his brother. Needless to say, he was on the field that Friday with no cast in sight.
Foster was a hardass, but not a one-dimensional one. To his students, his players, and his friends, there was never any doubt that he cared about you. My Uncle Chris remembers the first football team meeting of his Junior year in which all of the coaches were pumping the boys up and telling them what to expect for the year. When it was Foster’s turn, he simply walked up to the chalkboard and wrote his name and phone number down. He then turned to the players and said, “I’m Coach Foster and that’s my number. If any of you have any problems or need to talk, you can call me anytime.” And that was it—short and sweet and no room for bullshit. Typical Foster.
By the time I arrived at the high school, twenty years later, he was still as gruff and charming as ever. He knew me as “Dodson’s Daughter” and I’m not sure he ever once said my first name. But that was also his style. He had a nickname for every kid and back in the day, those names were terms of endearment, not grounds for a lawsuit. His teaching involved a lot of random discussions about World War II and an extensive collection of documentaries—many black and white and some not even history related. One of his favorites was the Lion and Hyena documentary, and if you graduated in the 90s, you’ve seen it about 50 times. By the 2000s he’d moved on to showing Forest Gump a few dozen times throughout the year. The only trouble was he would always start it from the beginning as opposed to where we’d left off the day before. There is an entire generation of 20-somethings out there who have never seen the end of that movie. And if you are thinking to yourself, “Why didn’t someone just ask him to fast forward to the right spot?” Well then, you never had Foster.
I was lucky enough to know Foster in three different roles: as a legend and subject of epic tales, as a teacher, and as a fellow staff member. When I joined the ranks of the history department in 2008, I felt I was walking among giants. It was Ruth Writer (my mentor and the reason I became a history teacher), Bob Storm (the best and most entertaining civics and econ teacher East of the Mississippi), Bob Foster, and me. I don’t think I said a word at our first department meeting. I’m pretty sure I just stared wide-eyed at these hometown celebrities and tried not to say anything stupid. I had nothing to worry about; they were as cool as I remembered. Some of my favorite times during those first few years were when Foster would walk by my room on his prep and wander in for a 45-minute chat on current events or politics. He was always revved up about something and always carrying a copy of the day’s South Bend Tribune. Sometimes he would cut out articles he thought I would like and send a student down to deliver it to me. Frequently he would include a few tomatoes or green peppers from his garden with the delivery. He still didn’t call me Stacey, preferring to address me as “Young Lady.” I can still hear him walking down the hallway and calling out to get my attention, “Young lady, what did you think about that debate last night?” or “Young lady, do you believe this Governor of ours?” I loved our chats and that smile and chuckle he would use to punctuate his main points. Every spring, when the curriculum rolled around to World War II, one of my favorite lessons involved comparing General George Patton to Coach Foster. The students loved it because, to us, he was the modern-day version of “Old Blood and Guts.”
I know many of you have your own memories of Foster that you will be sharing with friends and family in the coming days as we mourn the loss of our great leader, our inspiring coach, our beloved teacher, and our friend. I’m sure you will recall the passionate man pacing back and forth on the sidelines, wearing shorts to a late November game as the snow fell all around him. Perhaps you will talk about his relentless pursuits in the gym and his remarkable workout regimen—in his 60s he could still outwork most of the 18 year olds in the school. You will surely bring up his sense of humor and his classic one-liners. If you close your eyes, you can probably still picture him sitting at his desk, drinking his coffee and reading his paper. I don’t know if all of those legendary tales about him were true, but I like to think they were. I do know one thing though—I feel sorry for that Bear he wrestled. I’m sure it wasn’t a fair fight, because there was no match for Coach Foster.