Last week’s “prattle” reported the death of Dr.Charles William (Bill) Foster of Florence, Alabama who, in addition to his blue grass music, was the head of the History and English Department at the University of North Alabama.
Bill Foster’s death came on Sept. 7, 2012 at the age of 73, the same day that Rollin (Oscar) Sullivan of the Lonzo and Oscar fame died in Madison, Tenn. at the age of 93. Sullivan’s entertainment career was covered last week.
The Wells family became acquainted with Bill Foster, and The Foster Family String Band, on our 1979 visit to the The McClain Family Festival in Berea, Kentucky, We attended that annual event for five years, knowing that we could look forward to seeing the Foster Family, who not only were talented musicians and entertainers, but friendly and easy to socialize with.
We became “first name’ friends, which made it easy for us to hire the group to come to Chipley’s Railroad Centennial Celebration for a Sunday afternoon concert in the Centennial Opry House, the name applied to the recently vacated First Baptist Church in downtown Chipley. We had the Lonzo and Oscar Show, The McLain Family Band from Berea, Kentucky, The Academy Singers of Washington College Academy of Greenville, Tennessee and The Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers, headed by 84-year-old Dewey Williams of Ozark, Ala.
Your writer, who along with Hester, served as chairman of the entire Centennial Celebration. Our responsibility was securing talent for the big weekend of May 22 and 23. We were successful in bringing in a ladies “Sweet Adelines” and a “Men’s Barbershop Quartet,” both from Panama City. The gigantic celebration on Saturday was concluded after sundown at the football field with a free concerts by The Rader Family from Ocean Opry at Panama City Beach, Jeannie Pruitt from the Grand Ole Opry and Jerry Clower of Yazoo, Miss.
We were well familiar with Bill Foster’s ability to bring in his natural comedy talent as an Appalachian Region native. When introducing the band, Bill would first present his wife, Anne, who abandoned a promising career as a classic musician to follow the traditional sounds of bluegrass. Then he would add “and these are our two ‘foster children,’,Melissa and Will.” With that the band would jump right into a fast moving bluegrass song “Catfish John,” “ Delta Dawn,” “Peach Picking Time In Georgia” or “Ode To The Little Brown Shack Out Back.”
At the Chipley Sunday afternoon concert, Bill Foster greeted the enthusiastic capacity crowd in the converted Opry House with a strum on the banjo, then explained: “Well, since we are from Alabama and I have a Banjo on my knee, why not proceed with the old folk tune ‘Oh, Susanna!’”
The opening song brought the house down with applause and set the stage for a full hour
of songs and merriment from “Georgia Piney Woods” to “Travelin’ Minstrel Band.”
Hester prepared food in our home for the Fosters as she did for other performers. She still recalls Anne Foster’s comment about the gigantic Chicken Wiggles casserole she prepared for the main dish for the dinner menu on that joyous occasion. The first item on the recipe called for “one hen or two fryers.” That reveals the enormity of the finished product.
After the 1982 performance in Chipley, I mainly kept in touch with Bill Foster through our mutual friend, Otis Peacock. Chipley residents will recall that Mr. Peacock, a native of Altha, Fla., began his teaching career in Cottondale. His last assignment in the educational field was at the University of North Alabama, the same college Bill Foster taught a variety of subjects for 39 years. Peacock returned to live in Chipley and married his former teaching colleague, Elizabeth Green, in 1980.
My niece, Melanie Russ Brown, knew Dr. Bill Foster as a professor at the University of North Alabama campus. She knew of Dr. Foster’s laundry list of scholastic honors and achievements which reads like a Who’s Who in American Education Circles. Melanie gave Uncle Perry periodic reports on the Foster Family Band, before the musical group retired.
In an interview with Shernonda Allen, City Editor of the Times Daily Newspaper in Florence, Ala., after her father’s death, Melissa spoke lovingly of the experience: “I have been blessed to have lived with a treasure — to have sat on his knee as a child — and to have just been mesmerized by his stories,” Melissa said.
The daughter explaining that Foster was fluent in several dialects, stated: “He was such a scholar, We always said Daddy was multilingual. He could speak just enough German, just enough Spanish and was fully fluent in Appalachia!”
Melissa concluded her remarks with: “He was a man of dignity and class. He would stand from his chair when a woman entered a room. Sunday, the day that he had the stroke, there was a storm and he called to see if I needed him to come over. I’m four months shy of 50 years old and he still was looking out for me.”
Bill Foster’s greatest love was family. They were with him on Friday night when he died at Vanderbilt Hospital after suffering the stroke on Sunday night. In addition to family already mentioned, he was the proud grandpa of Nicholas and Cody Foster.
Bill and Anne celebrated their 50 years of marriage on March 12, 2012.
Visitation was held on Thursday, Sept. 13 at Christ Chapel from 5-7 p.m. A Celebration of Life Memorial Service followed at 7 p.m. with Pastors Doc Shell and Jimmy Hayes officiating. Elkins Funeral Home of Florence was entrusted with funeral arrangements.
The “prattler” considers it an honor to have known Dr. Bill Foster and his family. It is also my privilege to write this short tribute to his loving memory.