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T hat sweltering summer in 1920, T. Jack Foster could have been mistaken for any other sunburned, sweaty, hired hand in the hayfields north of Coalgate. Orphaned at age five, Foster spent summers on the 5,000-acre ranch which was owned by Fred Chiles and his wife, Mittie, T. Jack's sister. This was his last; that September he was bound for the University of Oklahoma.
But T. Jack was no ordinary ranch hand, nor for that matter, an ordinary man. T. Jack was a force to be reckoned with. During high school in Dallas he started a paper route. Before long he had it motorized and catering to a rival paper as well, serving a good-sized chunk of the city.
As a freshman at OU he noticed Norman had a dearth of dry cleaners. He started University Cleaners, and took it from a single press operation with delivery by motorcycle to one of the largest and most modern in Oklahoma.
Foster married Gladys Hutchins of Davis in 1922 and they had three sons: T. Jack Jr., John Robertson and Richard Hutchins. He entered law school even as his business ventures thrived, and still T. Jack envisioned more. He was elected Mayor of Norman at 27 and served from May of 1929 to May of 1933, making him the youngest mayor in the nation. He served two 2-year terms gaining national recognition. He graduated from law school and was admitted to the Oklahoma Bar Association in 1928. In 1933 he received permission to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States. He was named a director of the First National Bank of Norman, a position he held for 25 years.
Still, T. Jack was just getting started. In 1939, despite the monstrous shadow cast by the Great Depression, he ventured into real estate. His project was Norman Courts, one of the spiffiest and most modern of the popular "tourist courts," later known as motels. T. Jack's was the 64-unit talk of the industry Noted hotel and restaurant critic Duncan Hines called it "one of the five best in the country."
On Dec. 7, 1941 the Japanese attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, plunging the country into war. That January, Savoie Lottinville, director of the University of Oklahoma Press, had a chance meeting with Navy Captain K.B. Salisbury, which led to a conference with the Bureau of Aeronautics. T. Jack became an aggressive Norman advocate on the city's Chamber of Commerce delegation to secure defense installations. According to Dr. George Cross in his book The University of Oklahoma and World War II, the work "paid off handsomely." Norman secured the Naval Air Station, the Naval Technical Training Station and a large regional Naval hospital. Dr. Cross notes that "the university family was not unanimous in its approval of the location of the new Naval Air Technical Training Center."
The OU president and Norman Chamber of Commerce members were criticized, sometimes severely. There seemed to be a feeling that having a Naval establishment so near the University would constitute a threat to the morals of nearly all of the feminine gender of the area, especially the young women enrolled at the University. Fortunately, this dire prediction proved false; the Navy fed Norman's economy and the morals of the city's women survived.
After the War, the community wanted to keep the bases; OU wanted them closed. The fight promised to become bitter. T. Jack, despite all his time, travel and energy spent acquiring the bases, acted in the community's best interests and served as a go-between for the two factions. The Naval Air Station was decommissioned March 1, 1946, with OU eventually paying $7 million for 1,380 acres of land including buildings and equipment.
About that time, the tireless T. Jack had also been busy establishing the Pumice Aggregate Sales Corporation in Albuquerque. Having worked his own sons hard every summer just as he had been, he knew their mettle. He decided to pull his oldest out of OU at age 18 and entrust him with getting the fledgling office running smoothly. Fifteen months later Pumice was on its feet and T. Jack Jr. was back in college.
The brothers continued to follow in their father's impressive footsteps. All three sons graduated from OU and became members of Phi Delta Theta like their dad. After college T. Jack Jr. completed his Air Force active duty and married Pat Chesnut of Miami, Oklahoma. He worked in Honolulu in real estate development with his father's business partner, Bill Likins, until 1955. At that time the Fosters bought out Likins' interest and formed the family partnership, T. Jack Foster and Sons. T. Jack Sr. and Bill Likins had built thousands of houses on military bases, 1,000 at Fort Ord in Monterey, California.
T. Jack, Jr. saw the completion of the Foster Village housing project. He then commenced the construction of the 25-story Foster Towers while serving as president of Hawaii's Home Builders Association. He eventually went to San Mateo, California as a project manager and his brother Dick finished Foster Towers. Their brother Bob ran oil exploration programs in Oklahoma.
In 1958 T. Jack Sr. and Gladys moved to Pebble Beach, California. T. Jack had always loved the San Francisco Bay area, and he was looking for the ultimate project, the culmination of all his experiences. He wanted to bring in his sons and challenge his management team. T. Jack wanted to build a model city.
The Fosters combed the area from above Sacramento to below Monterey. They settled at last on Brewers Island, a 4-square-mile tract reclaimed from the San Francisco Bay a century before and at the time, a hay meadow. Eighteen million cubic yards of fill were required and 213 acres of lagoon created. The Fosters purchased it in 1960; the first families came in 1964. The concept was to create a balanced community able to function physically, economically, and socially to meet the needs and desires of its residents. Fosters managed it till 1970, when they sold the remaining land, both developed and undeveloped, to Centex West, Inc., a subsidiary of Centex Corp. in Dallas.
Shortly before that, T. Jack Jr. had taken over control of the project as his father's health deteriorated. T. Jack Sr. died March 15, 1968 of cancer. His statue now smiles over Foster City, a beautiful community of 29,828 brought to life right out of the San Francisco Bay. T. Jack's accolades include the Norman Chamber of Commerce's Quarter Century award, the national Horatio Alger Award of the American Schools and Colleges Association and election to the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. A man orphaned at 5 and raised by his sisters, ever the energetic optimist, T. Jack fashioned himself into a benevolent, creative real estate giant. Most of all, he realized his greatest ambition, which was to raise his sons and see them in business with him.
Robert Louis Stevenson might have been describing the future of the sunburned young Oklahoma field hand when he wrote "that man is successful who has lived well, laughed often and loved much, who has gained the respect of the intelligent men and the love of his children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who leaves the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of earth's beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best he had."
T. Jack Foster was, without question, a man like that.
The author, William C. Hudson, can be reached at 39 Greens Road, Durant, OK 74701.
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