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Jim Foster


Submitted by George D. Foss, childhood pal and high school classmate of
Jim Foster (see SMALL POTATOES--"On George’s Pond" in MEMORIES on this
site for more on Jim).

This is a reprint of an article by Steve Dzuby in the River Falls
Journal in October, 1992.

When Jim Foster slumped over in his chair and died of a heart attack early last week, a colorful piece of River Falls’ history went with him.  Scorned by many, revered by others, Foster -- the great-grandson of the city’s founder, Joel foster -- will be long remembered as one of River Falls’ all-time characters.  "Like many of us, he got caught up in politics, the civil rights and anti-war demonstrations of the Sixties," said his younger brother, Bruce. "We learned non-violence, non-cooperation as (a means of) protest. He made it a lifestyle." "A lot of people don’t like me because I associated with Jim," said Joe Hinderks, owner of Friendly Valley Draperies who met Foster about nine years ago while fishing along the Kinnickinnic.  "Those people looked at him, not through him." "He was kind of like that girl in Eau Claire," said Hinderks, referring to would-be homecoming queen April Schuldt, barred from her crown by administrators who didn’t believe she measured up to the image of royalty. "He didn’t dress properly but he was a very learned man." Hinderks plans to make a contribution to the River Falls Public Library in Jim’s memory. "He wasn’t a flower kind of guy." Following a stop at Mel’s Midtowner each morning, where he’d read and paraphrase the morning paper for friends over coffee and rolls, Foster would usually amble to the public library to read other newspapers.

Shortly after beginning his senior year at River Falls High School, Foster signed on in the Navy as a radar/sonar operator aboard a destroyer in the Pacific Ocean. In 1947, he returned to finish high school, then attended UWRF for two years, taking general courses. He married Shirley Yarn of Hudson in 1948. She was a registered nurse working at River Falls City Hospital as the couple raised four children. In 1962, the family moved to St. Paul where Jim attended Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis, eventually earning credentials as a tool & die maker. He used his skills while employed with several firms including Western Electric, United Bedding and Keys Well Drilling. His wife later became a nurse anesthetist. The pair separated in 1972 at which time Jim moved back to River Falls. Foster and his ex-wife, who now lives in Pueblo, Colorado, remained on good terms, said Hinderks. She visited him here on several occasions, taking him out for dinner and giving him a gift at Christmas. Foster was brilliant at solving mechanical problems. Sitting in Hinderks’ office one day, he used a clothes pin and tail light to create a device to drain residual power from rechargeable VCR and appliance batteries so they will again accept a full charge.  When Hinderks told Foster he believed the scheme had great money-making potential, Foster encouraged Joe to explore it but he wanted no part of any profits. Foster frequently used his talents to help less fortunate or impoverished people in the community. He repaired cars, performed general fix-it tasks, and often shared food items he’d salvaged from local grocery store dumpsters. "He charged $10 for everything, whether it was changing the tires or changing the motor," said Bruce. "Ten dollars was all he needed each day." "There was so much good in him that people didn’t see," said Hinderks, recalling the day he recruited Joe to help him repair a bicycle for a little boy whose single mother was broke. When another local resident -- the late Ben Kusilek -- was terminally
ill some years ago, Jim appeared at the family’s home to cut the grass and split wood.
Once when local barber Norry Larson "couldn’t even commence to bend over" due to back problems, Foster stopped by and swept his shop floor "four or five times daily for a week," Larson said. "All it cost me was two beer and a haircut. There was a lot of good to that guy. He was a morale builder." Foster accepted people as they were, Bruce said, "He was probably the most non-racist person I ever met. He was the only white member of an all-black VFW club in Minneapolis. And they loved him!"

Those who knew him will say Foster was an unabashed crusader for the Kinnickinnic River. He hiked it, he fished it, protected it, improved it and knew every rock and ripple. "He was a different person on the trout stream than he was on Main Street. He loved that stream," said Hinderks.  Tim Engel, produce manager at Dick’s IGA, recalled one time when he and his father-in-law, Gas Lite owner Peter Huppert, were clearing brush from the banks of the Trimbelle River to improve trout habitat. They looked up and noticed Jim Foster walking along Hwy 10, picking up trash.  "What are you doing?" he shouted. Once they explained, he dropped his bag and joined them. Foster continued for three days.  "Regardless whether we were working on the Kinni or the Willow, he was always there, always working," said Keyes. "He just stepped in. And he was always up on everything, well informed."  Foster loved to fish. And he always knew where to find the trout, according to Hinderks. On Joe’s wall is a topo map of the stream marked with many of his favorite holes: Weepingcliff, Hole-in-the-wall, Rock-in-the-river and Devil’s waterspout. "The lower Kinni was his whole life. He was very much a naturalist but TU(Trout Unlimited) didn’t like him because he ate the fish," said Hinderks.  His fishing gear -- a Zebco 33 reel clamped on an old fly rod -- wasn’t fancy but Hinderks says he could outfish anyone.  Foster was always telling Joe that River Falls didn’t fully appreciate the resource flowing through its back yard. "He said ‘We need a canoe launch. We need a fishing pier.’ Those were his ideas. He said we’re not making the best of Lake George," said Hinderks. Foster was also a keen naturalist and conservationist. He shared his skills with area youth by serving as a Boy Scout leader.

Jim also seemed to take perverse pleasure in antagonizing the local police department. Although Foster once kicked an officer in the groin and verbally abused others, his offenses were comparatively harmless.  Less than two years ago, he was arrested and charged with obstructing an officer after he strode down Main Street ahead of the meter monitor, systematically twisting each dial meter dial to activate the mechanism which grants motorists 12 minutes free.  "He got a lot of people mad, including the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, because he was always pushing, pushing, pushing," said Hinderks.  Several months after Foster received a six-month jail term for criminal damage to property (he’d broken windows in a family member’s house and vehicle following a disagreement), Sheriff Jim Hines decided to release Foster early for good behavior. "No way. I’m not leaving. It’s cold out there," said Foster, insisting Hines allow him to serve the full jail term.  Upon conclusion of another short jail term, an officer ordered that Foster sign his name on the discharge register. When the jailer took issue with Foster having signed the name of "Carlyle Schrank", a River Falls police officer, Foster pulled a number of documents from his wallet identifying him as Schrank. It seemed he’d found them months earlier in a dumpster behind City Hall and was just waiting for the chance to thumb his nose at the system. Usually when Foster pulled such stunts, he was trying to make a statement. He once paraded through Johnnie’s Bar clad in only a cardboard box to protest a local store which refused to sell him a topical medication. Another time he crashed a Main Street parade, joining the procession with a dead squirrel in tow.  Back in August, 1985, local police records show officers were called to Veteran’s Park where someone was reported to have started a fire. The arriving officer found Foster, dressed up in what appeared to be a clown’s costume sitting on a park bench near a smoldering fire. He’d apparently seen one of the youths litter. When they rebuffed his lecture about improper disposal, he set fire to the junk to show them the perils of allowing trash to accumulate.  Hinderks too said Foster was a steward of the land. He saw that first-hand once while fishing with Jim and his brother, Bruce, on the shores of Lake Michigan.  Along with his gear, Jim carried a five-gallon pail, stooping periodically to pick up refuse other fisherman had left behind. During the second day of fishing, a complete stranger came up and thanked Foster for his conscientiousness.  Keyes acknowledged that many people criticized Foster, scornful of his seamy appearance and irreverence toward social norms. One Sunday morning, he walked into the Gas Lite with his hair dyed coal black.  "Like my new image?" Foster quipped to gawking onlookers -- Keyes among them.  "I heard a lot of people say he was the scum of the earth, but I never saw that side of him. He was slam-dunked so much but he was the most wonderful person."  "He was born 100 years too late," added Hinderks. "he should have been born in the 1800’s."  He is survived by his former wife, Shirley, of Pueblo,Colorado; two daughters, Vicki Fullmer and Mary Foster of River Falls; two sons, Joel of Pueblo and Michael of Ridgeland; his mother, Leatha, and brother, Bruce, both of River Falls.  He was preceded in death by his father, Earl, and one sister, Joan Foster Hall. The funeral service was held Saturday, Oct. 24, 1992, at Cashman Mortuary in River Falls. The Rev. Dr. Del Permann officiated. Cremation followed the service.  The family requests memorials be directed to the River Falls Public Library.

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