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Foerster's friends recall man who left behind a legacy

Wednesday, January 12, 2000

By Johnna A. Pro and James O'Toole, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Back in the days when Pittsburgh International Airport was still under construction, Tom Foerster was holding court one winter afternoon at a luncheon for several people involved in the project.

Foerster was in the midst of an in-depth discussion about the construction when Bob Nelkin, then head of social services for Allegheny County, walked into the room.

Foerster, stopping mid-sentence, turned to Nelkin and said, '"All I want to know from you is where is that family sleeping tonight,'" recalled Alvin Rogal, who was at the meeting.

Foerster was referring to a newspaper article published that day which detailed the travails of an out-of-town family that had been sleeping in their car.

It was quintessential Foerster, worried about the less fortunate, said Rogal, chairman of the insurance firm Hilb, Rogal and Hamilton.

"I just liked him very much when I met him. I liked his attitude and his thought process," said Rogal, who over the years developed a deep friendship with Foerster.

Like others in the region and state last night, Rogal spent time remembering Foerster, who died yesterday.

"What struck me about him was what I call the essence of the man, the caring for people," said Rogal. "I loved him very much."

Retired Auxiliary Bishop John McDowell, Foerster's longtime friend and priest, echoed that sentiment.

"He never complained about problems. He had a gift for caring for people. I think that characterized his whole role in public life," McDowell said.

Foerster's name, said County Executive Jim Roddey, is synonymous with commissioner.

Roddey met with reporters just hours after Foerster's death, in his new office across the hall from the one Foerster occupied for years.

He lauded Foerster's legacy and said one of the lessons he drew from it was the Democrat's ability to build coalitions across party and faction.

The new chief executive was seated in an ornate oak chair intricately carved with the seal of Allegheny County.

"This is the chair he sat in for 28 years," Roddey said. "I'll never be able to fill that chair, but I'll do my best to work for the causes he [worked for.]"

Gov. Ridge, who is attending meetings in California, also issued a statement about Foerster.

"If you compare Allegheny County politics with a forest of trees, Tom Foerster was always the mighty oak. Unflappable. Unstoppable. A constant presence in the landscape of Allegheny County.

"Allegheny Countians, fellow public officials, and political allies and opponents all knew him not merely as a good politician, but as a good man."

Carol Brown, head of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, summed up the feelings of many when she called Foerster "a visionary leader."

State Treasurer Barbara Hafer, a former Allegheny County commissioner, said Foerster was a wise counselor to her, despite their differences.

"We became friends and I really saw him as a mentor in many ways," said Hafer, noting that it was Foerster who taught her to pay attention to details.

"People didn't realize that about him I think because of his size and because he'd been in office for so long. But he understood that the devil is in the details and he understood how every aspect of county government worked. That is not what most elected officials do. We see the big picture."

Richard P. Simmons, chairman of Allegheny Technologies and the past chairman of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, lauded Foerster's 40 years in public service.

Most everyone recalled Foerster's passion for the Community College of Allegheny County of which he was a founder.

Dr. Roy Flores, president of CCAC, called Foerster, "the father of affordable education in Pennsylvania."

"His vision to create quality, affordable education for hundreds of thousands of residents allowed innumerable dreams to become realities and countless families to improve their histories. For a public servant, there can be no greater accomplishment," Flores said.

John Marous, the retired chief executive of Westinghouse Corp., knew Foerster before either of them attained prominence. They both coached youth baseball on the North Side. He recalled that over the years, Foerster would often call him asking for help for a favored cause or a down-on-his-luck friend.

"It was always for someone else," Marous said. "I said to him once, "Tom, when are you going to ask for something for yourself?'

"He said, 'I might get around to it,' but he never did."

Staff Writer Cindi Lash contributed to this report.

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