Dan Foster, who for more than half a century informed and entertained readers of The Greenville News and Greenville Piedmont as a sports editor and writer, died Friday after a life and career that not only made him a local icon but earned him the respect of some of the greatest sports figures of the 20th century.
He was 80.
Foster retired in 2000 after a 52-year career at the Greenville newspapers but continued to write occasional columns for The News. He gave perspective to the trials and triumphs of the local college sports teams at Clemson, the University of South Carolina and his alma mater, Furman.
And he gave local readers a front-row seat at the biggest sporting events in the country – the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Kentucky Derby and the Masters, among others. He was awarded the Masters Major Achievement Award in 2007, having covered 48 Masters.
Steve Brandt, publisher of The News, said, "Dan Foster was an important part of the history of The Greenville News. For many years, for many of our readers, he was the face of the newspaper. He was always held in appropriately high regard by his sports writing colleagues around the South and around the country.
"Dan was a great storyteller and was always willing to share the wisdom gained from years on the road covering the great sporting events of our time," he said. "We all loved listening to him."
John Pittman, executive editor of the newspaper, said, "Dan Foster was a special talent who could have worked anywhere but chose to devote his entire career to his hometown. He had an incomparable wit and the ability to make us laugh at ourselves. And he was a consummate reporter who never walked away from the difficult story that had to be written."
When Foster joined the Piedmont as a sportswriter in 1948, Mickey Mantle was playing semi-pro baseball with a team called the Whiz Kids.
Clemson won the Southern Conference Championship in football that year. It would be another five years before the ACC was created
The Tigers played the second of their 31 bowl games that year, defeating Missouri, 24-23.
Jackie Robinson had just broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball the year before.
The first Super Bowl was still 19 years in the future.
The year Foster began his career at the newspaper while a 19-year-old junior at Furman, the Braves, still in Boston, lost the World Series 4 games to 2 to the Cleveland Indians – the same team they would defeat for the championship 47 years later.
Who wouldn't feel compelled to read on after this opening paragraph to his story of the Braves series-clinching win in 1995?
"When the Atlanta Braves' world championship really, truly, finally was achieved," he wrote, "it had a better, more dramatic finish than anyone could have imagined."
Foster experienced his own share of drama on the job.
On Oct. 17, 1989, he was covering the third game of the World Series in San Francisco's Candlestick Park when a 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck the Bay area, killing 63 people and injuring more than 3,700.
"I turned to tell Blackie Sherrod, The Dallas Morning News sports columnist sitting on my left, to quit shaking my seat," Foster wrote. "But his seat was shaking, too, and his expression wasn't that of a man playing a joke. Fifteen seconds is a long time in a situation like that.
"We were under attack from an earthquake."
He was known by everyone who met him as a jokester, a man to whom nobody was a stranger. His smiling face, pictured beside his daily column, was an accurate depiction of his personality – easygoing, friendly, always keeping things in perspective despite the pressures of deadlines and the inevitable critics of anyone who expresses an opinion on sports.
He possessed a keen analytical mind and was known among his colleagues for asking the questions that drove the story lines of coverage. Though he spent a career in sports, he was a broadly skilled newsman with superior judgment and a swift and expansive memory that he used to counsel editors and reporters throughout the newsroom.
And there were less public dimensions to his life, a soft and serious side that reached out to the underprivileged and never forgot a friend.
A glimpse of that was provided Friday after the newspaper published its first story on its Web site reporting his death. An anonymous man posted a comment.
"I met Mr. Foster about seven years ago when myself and my family was in a homeless program and we (lived) in his church for a week. I got to talk to him and we talked about sports and life and he gave me great encouragement and gave me and my wife $50 to help us.
"I would like him to know today we both have good jobs and are homeowners. I will never forget the kindness he showed to us."
Greenville native Jesse Jackson called Foster "a pivotal force in my life." He said that Foster played a key role in his leaving Greenville to play football at the University of Illinois.
"At that time, even though I grew up on University Ridge, I could not apply to Furman or Clemson or the University of South Carolina. He thought that was not fair," he said. Today, Jackson said, "I see the University of South Carolina playing Clemson, Tigers and Gamecocks. I see jersey color and not skin color. Dan Foster helped create that in South Carolina."
The America we take for granted, Jackson said, "Dan Foster helped create, and I'm eternally grateful to him."
Foster wasn't afraid to ask tough questions and risk alienation from sports figures he covered – and they respected him for it.
"Dan was always very fair," legendary North Carolina Tar Heels basketball coach Dean Smith wrote about Foster in a tribute on Foster's retirement in November 2000. "Deep down, I'm sure Dan was cheering for Clemson, but he was always more than fair with us."
Former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who Foster covered when Lasorda pitched for the Greenville Spinners in 1949, said Foster deserves a place in the Hall of Fame.
"I've looked up to him and admired him because of the ability he had to be able to bring to the people exactly what was going on in sports," Lasorda wrote for Foster's retirement tribute. "So to me, he should be in the Hall of Fame as a writer."
A native of Greenville's textile mill community, Daniel Max Foster was born on Nov. 27, 1928. He attended Monaghan Elementary School and graduated from Parker High School in 1945.
He earned a degree in sociology, with a minor in journalism, from Furman in 1949.
He went into the Air Force in 1950 and served in the Korean War, where as an officer he was in charge of the Armed Forces Radio crew that covered the signing of the truce.
Some of his most notable work was his coverage of golf's most prestigious event, the Masters, where he became well-acquainted with the greats of the game – Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
Foster gave an emotional account of Nicklaus' sixth Masters victory in 1986. He noticed tears welling up in Nicklaus' eyes when he heard the roar from the crowd as victory was within his grasp and he got the Golden Bear to describe his feelings at that moment.
"I'm sitting there in the middle of a golf tournament and I get all this ovation, and I get pretty emotional," Nicklaus told Foster. "I sort of well up."
Foster wrote, "But summoning that all-purpose determination, a resource for all seasons and reasons, he snapped himself back into the role of competitor. He pushed back the tears and marched on to his 20th major tournament championship and the 71st victory of an unparalleled career."
Foster gave his readers a rare insight into the psyche of Arnold Palmer at the 1962 Masters.
He picked up on little things that went unnoticed by other writers – such as Palmer holding his wife's hand as he studied the green on the 14th hole before making his best shot of the day.
Foster was the last living journalist who witnessed Frank Selvy's 100-point game in a Furman victory over Newberry in 1954.
He was respected not only by the players he covered but by his peers as well.
In his trips across the country, and especially around the South, Foster became friends with all of the legendary sportswriters of the era.
Blackie Sherrod of The Dallas Morning News described Foster in 2000 as one who wrote circles around his competitors and then offered to help them.
Larry Guest, retired columnist of The Orlando Sentinel, said Foster gave the "gypsy family" of sportswriters during his era perspective in dealing with picky editors and surly coaches.
"Dan's upbeat persona and bad jokes were always wonderful leavening for the more cynical of us in the clan," Guest wrote upon Foster's retirement.
During his early years, Foster encountered many athletes who would become icons of American sports.
In the spring of 1958, a 26-year-old Mickey Mantle and the rest of the New York Yankees came to Greenville to play the Philadelphia Phillies in an exhibition game in the old Meadowbrook Park.
Writing about his memory of meeting Mantle upon the slugger's death in 1995, Foster recounted an interview with Yankee manager Casey Stengel that day.
"Mantle is an amazing player," Foster quoted Stengel as saying. "Certain days there's no one in baseball who can hit a baseball as far as he can, either left-handed or right-handed. And there are days when he can run faster and field better than anybody in baseball."
In 1986, Foster was elected president of the nation's largest and most prestigious organization of sports writers, the National Football Writers Association, and in 1998 he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.
Soon after his retirement, he was awarded the Order of the Palmetto, the highest honor bestowed by the state of South Carolina.
The stories? Dan Foster had thousands.
More than a few of them you read on the pages of The Greenville News and Greenville Piedmont during his more than 52 years as sports editor and columnist.
Easily more than 10,000 during a career that spanned six decades.
Some never made it to print but were told with wit and laughter, stories behind stories.
"He was an institution," said Furman Bisher, emeritus columnist at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a graduate of Furman University a few years ahead of Foster, "Irreplaceable, one of a kind."
Foster wrote with intelligence, humor and an even hand.
"He was one of the funniest people in the business I ever met," said Ron Green, retired columnist for The Charlotte Observer and a native of Greenville. "I once told him I'd give anything to just follow him around for a few days so I could hear some of his best stories."
Mike Hembree, a longtime colleague of Foster's at The News and now associate editor of Street and Smith's Sports Group in Charlotte, said, "To see Dan in attendance at a football game or basketball tournament was to know that his take in the next day¹s paper would be dependably on target, wickedly funny and clearly unique."
Foster knew stories because he seemed to know everybody.
Greenville was home. Other than a stint in the Air Force, this is where he remained, yet during his career he had the opportunity to cover most every major sporting event in the country. Foster became a fixture at the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Masters, bowl games, college basketball's Final Four and the Kentucky Derby.
The roster of people in sports was impressive. Tommy Lasorda, who met his wife while pitching here in the minor leagues, called during his annual visit to the in-laws. And there were so many others – Bear Bryant, Vince Dooley, Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, Norm Van Brocklin, Nolan Ryan and Dean Smith.
In covering sports in South Carolina for a half-century, Foster's voice resonated with fans.
While working for the Greenville Piedmont during the era of school segregation, he admired the quarterback on the all-black Sterling High School team and wrote about Jesse Jackson.
"I was a high school senior in 1959, five years before the public accommodations bill. No black policemen, no black firemen, no black elected officials. We couldn't vote. We lived under real oppressive, segregated conditions. Dan resented that system," Jackson recalled. "He believed that on the playing field that we could be more adequately measured.
"He thought that arena was where a great change could take place in America."
Foster saw his share of sports history. Among the earliest was the 100-point performance by Frank Selvy in a Furman basketball game with Newberry College. Selvy credited Foster for helping him win All-America honors and they went on to be great friends and golf companions.
"I owed a lot to Dan," Selvy said.
"I had tremendous respect for Dan," said former Furman and N.C. State football coach Dick Sheridan. "He had the ability to relate to coaches and players and had an understanding that a lot of guys you deal with don't have.
"He was a wonderful person, just a good guy," he said. "He had a big impact on me.
"I always felt like I could confide in Dan, and he had an interest in what was right along with what was news."
Also along the way he fell into a group of contemporaries, well-traveled scribes spanning the continent – Blackie Sherrod of Dallas, Edwin Pope of Miami, Bill Millsaps of Richmond, Bisher and the late Jim Murray of The Los Angeles Times .
They began to travel together to the big events. One or two others might float in and out of the group over the years, but at the center were Murray, Sherrod, Pope and Foster. Typically they would wind up in somebody's hotel room after the final word was filed, swapping stories with the anecdotal fly on the wall serving as the audience.
There were a number of adventures and the logistics became more cumbersome when Murray fell blind, but the biggest was the 1989 World Series in San Francisco when the earthquake hit. Foster managed to drive them to safety, and they all filed before deadline.
Bisher recalled that afterward they began to refer to themselves as "The Geezers." They met as frequently as time, health and disposition allowed.
Murray died in 1996. Foster didn't attend the last meeting, Bisher said.
Sherrod, from Dallas, said, "I am most fortunate to claim Foster as a close pal for more than a half-century."
Larry Guest, an author and longtime Orlando Sentinel sports columnist, said Friday that "God is laughing today because Dan Foster is in his presence."
As sports editor he mentored dozens of young, ambitious reporters, some who went on to impressive careers, including Henry Freeman, the first sports editor of USA TODAY .
"I figure I owe my entire career to Dan, quite frankly," said Freeman, whom Foster hired in the 1970's and quickly promoted to assistant sports editor. "He saw something in me at 21 or 22 that I didn't see in myself, and gave me that opportunity."
Freeman was a key player in the team that birthed the national daily.
"I told Dan that a lot of the concepts we had at USA TODAY actually had their germination during the time I worked in Greenville," said Freeman, editor and vice president of The Journal News in Westchester, N.Y.
"To have somebody as talented as he was to devote his life for over 50 years to the same newspaper and the same community is pretty amazing these days."
Tom Layton grew up in Anderson reading Foster and worked with him at The News for nearly 20 years.
"He often reminded us that we were writing about people, not statistics. And when I remember Dan, I think about the people he knew — the big-leaguers he brought home to Greenville through his stories," said Layton, now with Samaritan's Purse in Boone, N.C.
"He was the sharpest interviewer I ever saw," Layton said. "He could ask hard questions without hurting feelings. He got the answers his readers wanted."