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Tom Foerster: Ordinary tastes, extraordinary kindnesses

Thursday, January 13, 2000

By Johnna A. Pro and Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Some nights he came in hankering for a fish sandwich. Other times, nothing would do but a casserole of hot sausage, baked in savory tomato sauce and smothered in melted mozzarella.

 
  James Bougher at Billy's Troy Hill Bistro: "It'll be awhile before anyone even thinks about sitting at his table." (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

But on Tuesdays, the staff at Billy's Troy Hill Bistro didn't need to ask what Tom Foerster wanted for dinner. For years, Tuesdays were the nights when Foerster stepped through the leaded-glass front door and called out to the manager: "Have any meat loaf today, Jim?"

"It got so I'd make meat loaf a daily special on Tuesdays because I knew he'd be in," said James Bougher, manager of the eatery on Lowrie Street, about three blocks from Foerster's brick ranch home. "He liked simple things, like mashed potatoes and gravy. His approach to food was his approach to life -- honest and home-style."

As a longtime Allegheny County commissioner, Foerster spent a lifetime in the spotlight. But behind the public figure was a private and simple man, remembered by family and close friends for his kindnesses and his quirks.


A table in the back

In the 14 years since Billy's opened on a corner in the heart of Troy Hill, Foerster -- and later his wife, Georgeann -- dined often at the old-fashioned restaurant that boasts a pressed-tin ceiling, teal and rose walls and Victorian glass lamps on the tables.

On Tuesdays and sometimes on weekends, Foerster stopped in on his way home, made a quick right at the massive wooden bar and went up two steps to the dining room.

"He seemed to enjoy it here," said Bougher, 64. "It was his place in his neighborhood, a place that was a nonpolitical situation. He could come in here to relax and enjoy people and they could enjoy him."

Here, Foerster's favorite marble-topped table waited in the back, closest to the kitchen so he could chat with the waiters and catch a whiff of good things cooking. The table sat four, leaving room for the friends that Foerster invariably waved over to join him for a chat, Bougher said.

"He and Georgie were the best," said retired music teacher Elliott "Doc" Brock, 85, who lives on Lowrie Street and plays the organ at Billy's on weekends. "In 1993, I was in the hospital and Tom called me up. I said, 'Tom, you're a busy, important person. Don't worry about me.' But he wanted to know what I needed."

Over the past year, Foerster's own declining health had made it harder for him to walk, so he opted to sit instead at the booth nearest to the front door, Bougher said. In recent weeks, Foerster and his wife hadn't been in at all.

Regulars at Billy's knew Foerster wasn't well, but they kept his table reserved on Tuesdays, just in case.

"I couldn't believe he wasn't going to make it through this," he said. "He's all we've been talking about and we're going to miss him as a friend, not just as a person in politics. It'll be a while before anyone even thinks about sitting at his table."


A courthouse workaholic

If anyone knew Foerster, it was Crafton's Jim Flynn, his longtime administrative aide and driver, a man who was by his side almost to the very end.

For all his power, Foerster was a simple man who enjoyed simple pleasures -- a Steelers game, the fish and shrimp at Butya's Restaurant in Robinson, or a meal with friends at Mitchell's on Ross Street, where he often held court.

He didn't drink or much approve of drinking, hated cigarettes, disliked flying and enjoyed a good bowl of soup, especially tomato rice.

For the most part, and for most of his life, Foerster was a workaholic, a man fueled by black coffee and naps in the car, whose days began at 7:30 a.m. and ended well past midnight.

"I often wondered if he ever slept," Flynn said. "He lived in that courthouse."

Flynn said he and Foerster would return to the office at the end of each day at 6 or 7 p.m. and Flynn would go home. But his boss would "be there to midnight or 1 a.m. Seven days a week, that was his whole life."

At least until Georgeann came along.

Flynn remembers the day he realized that Foerster, the bachelor who'd lived a lifetime in his family's home, was in love and wanted to marry.

The men had lunch at Billy's Troy Hill Bistro.

When they finished eating, Foerster suggested they drive around the neighborhood to look at homes.

"I figured something was up," Flynn said.


The wedding that grew

When Foerster and the former Georgeann Zupancic first approached retired Auxiliary Bishop John McDowell about their wedding, Foerster had a plan.

"He said, 'We want to get married. We don't want to make this a big thing. We want to keep this quiet.' "

So quiet, in fact, that even his secretary Margaret O'Malley didn't know.

When Foerster finally told her and asked her to plan the affair, he reiterated what he had told the bishop.

"It went from being this big secret that I didn't know about to my being in charge of the wedding," said O'Malley.

The problem was that Foerster invited everyone he talked to and met.

"He'd go out to lunch and he'd come in and have all these names scribbled on a napkin. I had to keep calling the Sheraton," she said. "First it was for 25 people, then 75 people. I think we ended up with 1,000. It just grew and grew."

What was most amusing, O'Malley said, was that Foerster would whisper additions to the guest list to her as if the event was a secret.

"I said, 'What's the secret? Why don't we put in the paper?' " O'Malley recalled, laughing.

Following the ceremony, Foerster and Georgeann were making their way to a limousine when women from a local shelter stopped to congratulate him.

As they stood there talking, Foerster noticed a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne inside the limo. It had been a wedding gift.

"He just handed them the bottle," O'Malley said. "That's the kind of thing he would do without thinking. He wouldn't keep anything."

In fact, Foerster had such an aversion to accepting gifts to avoid a conflict of interest that O'Malley had to remind him about wedding etiquette.

"I said if you get gifts for your wedding, it would be rude to return them," she said.


Tears for 'Pappy'

On Tuesday night, Kim Brown had to break the news to her children that their Pappy had died.

For Julianna, 9, and Scotty, 6, Foerster was the only grandfather they'd ever known.

"They cried as if their hearts would break," said Brown, whose mother, Georgeann, married the lifelong bachelor on Nov. 23, 1990.

With his new wife came an instant family and a role that he relished and in which he excelled -- grandfather.

"We were all really adults when they got married. I was married myself with a child. He took over the grandfather role," Brown recalled. "He took to that role and he enjoyed it.

"There's a lovely picture of him at their wedding holding my daughter, who was just a few months old," Brown recalled. "He had a big smile on his face. It's like he was saying, 'It's official, I'm a grandpa.'"

So while others remember his political accomplishments, Brown's children and their cousins, Dana, 10, Gina, 5, and Tony Cimarolli, 2, Linsey Zupancic, 8, Jacqueline Mooney, 4, and Nicole McNaught, 8, remember a man who, although not related by blood, loved them unconditionally.

Like other doting grandfathers, Foerster was quick to call the children to him so he could slip them money or little trinkets.

"He loved tossing a football, even in the living room," Brown recalled.

As recently as New Year's Day, the family was gathered to celebrate the holiday, Brown said.

"My mother said, 'Is it too much for you to have all the children around, Tom?' He said, 'No, I love it.' "


Always human

Alvin Rogal, a longtime Foerster friend and confidant, wasn't certain about the specifics.

But in thinking about Foerster, one particular incident came to mind, Rogal said.

It was during a top level meeting following a construction worker's death at the midfield terminal construction site at Pittsburgh International Airport.

The discussion centered on what went wrong, who was at fault and, from the perspective of the lawyers, who was responsible.

As such discussions go, those in the room went round and round, wrapped up in their debate.

Foerster just sat listening, Rogal recalled.

Then he spoke up.

"He said, 'On Saturday, I'm going to the funeral. Who's going with me?' "



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