Bob Foster’s given name was Robert, but it might as well have been Leo, as in “Mr. Leo.”
Throughout the school’s 94-year history, no one individual contributed more than Mr. Robert W. Foster, Class of 1958, who made it his life’s mission to be of service to Leo. His career spanned more than 40 years and included roles as teacher, coach, parent, counselor, athletic director, vice-principal, principal and president. He approached each job with one objective: to keep the feisty little school at 79th and Sangamon alive and thriving by being a tireless advocate for the young Lions in his charge.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that without Bob Foster, there is no Leo,” said Dan McGrath, who took over as Leo’s president following Mr. Foster’s retirement in 2009. “When the Irish Christian Brothers pulled out in 1992, Bob was responsible for the ‘enlist the alumni’ strategy that has kept us going to his day.”
Mr. Foster passed away on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019, at his home, surrounded by family. He was 80 and had been in declining health for several years.
“My phone has been blowing up all morning,” said Michael Holmes, Leo’s current football coach who played for Mr. Foster and coached under him. “That’s just one indication of the number of lives Bob touched.”
“What an incredible presence,” said Shaka Rawls, Leo’s current principal, who experienced Mr. Foster as a football coach and as a principal. “To me, he stood for all that Leo stands for. You did not want to be on his bad side, not because you were afraid of him, but because you didn’t want to let him down.”
“All of us who are involved with Leo in any capacity at all owe Mr. Foster a tremendous debt of gratitude,” McGrath said.
A standout lineman who played on a city championship team at Leo, Mr. Foster received a football scholarship to Purdue University, where he continued his playing career. He returned to Leo to teach and coach in 1962, only to leave in 1964 to help start a football program at Little Flower High School.
Brief stints at Mt. Carmel and St. Rita followed, but when Mr. Foster returned to Leo in 1970, it was pretty much for good. He would remain involved with the school and eventually run it until his retirement in 2009.
“When I think of Bob’s tenure at Leo, two things stand out: saving the school in 1992, when the Irish Christian Brothers withdrew their sponsorship, and the many roles Bob held over his 40-plus years,” said Bob Sheehy ’71, longtime President of the Leo Advisory Board and recipient of the 2019 Leo Lions Legacy Award. “He was a teacher, parent, football coach, athletic director, counselor, dean, vice-principal, principal and president. That’s impressive.”
Sheehy, a wide receiver at Leo whose play earned him a scholarship to Purdue, was a Leo senior in 1970, Mr. Foster’s first as the school’s head coach.
“We were picked to finish last in South Division,” he recalled. “We ended up winning the division and playing for the Catholic League championship. Other than the outcome (a loss to St. Rita), he often commented on what a great year it was for him.”
As President of the Advisory Board, Sheehy worked closely with Mr. Foster on various school-related matters. “What I liked most about Bob was you always knew where he stood on any issue regarding Leo,” he said. “You may not always have agreed with him, but you knew in his heart he did what he thought was best for the school and the kids.”
The Leo Mr. Foster wound up running bore faint resemblance to the 1,000-student, mostly white Irish powerhouse of his days as a student. The “white flight” that occurred throughout Auburn-Gresham in the late ’60s helped fuel a perception that the neighborhood was no longer safe and gradually dissuaded Leo alums from sending their sons, resulting in a significant decline in enrollment.
Over time the school population came to reflect the changed makeup of the neighborhood; Leo’s enrollment today is roughly 98 percent African American, and has been for the past 25 years.
But Mr. Foster never embraced the idea of relocating Leo to the southwest suburbs, where it would attract a more affluent, “whiter” clientele. He always believed Leo was built to serve the sons of Chicago’s working class South Side.
“A Mission doesn’t change just because neighborhood demographics change,” Mr. Foster was fond of saying.”
Jack Fitzgerald was hired as Leo’s basketball coach only two years out of college. He would stay 24 years and win more than 400 games, with Mr. Foster his supervisor as athletic director or principal.
“If you coached for Bob, you always knew he had your back,” Fizgerald said. “One time after a game I was arguing a call with an official outside the coaches’ room. It was more of a discussion than an argument, not really heated. Bob knew the guy from softball, knew his family pretty well, but he walked up and told him to get out of our building. ‘Nobody comes in here and talks to our coaches like that.’
“I used to keep the coaches’ room open after games, and if we won, some of my friends might stop by and have a beer. Bob never did. But if we lost, he’d be in there without fail. I finally asked him why, and he said, ‘You don’t need me when you win—you’ve got your buddies around. When you lose is when you need me.’”
George Sperekas played quarterback for some of Mr. Foster’s better Leo teams in the mid-’80s. He believes the experience helped shape his life.
“Coach Foster epitomized what it meant to be from the South Side: work hard on and off the field, be accountable and make no excuses,” he said. “I recall Coach telling us to ‘fight that little voice inside of us that tells us to slow down or take it easy when things get difficult or you feel like giving up.’ He’d say, ‘Adversity introduces the man to himself.’
“I’ve heard those words throughout my life.”
Mr. Foster collected awards by the truckload over his career: Leo Hall of Fame, Leo Man of the Year in 2008, Chicago Catholic League Hall of Fame in 1983, Lawless Award as Catholic League Coach of the Year, Distinguished American Award from the National Football Foundation in 1999. Such honors never meant much to him.
Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame inductees are known for lengthy, mind-numbing speechifying. Mr. Foster declined to give a speech when he was selected in 2013, choosing instead to acknowledge Leo while thanking those who had picked him.
“He was my coach and my friend, a great man who lived for Leo and his family and all the men whose lives he touched,” said Ray Callahan ’80, a Leo football player under Mr. Foster. “The Leo Family has lost a great one.”
Added Bob Sheehy: “Bob had two loves in life: his family, and Leo. His daughter Jennifer told me he ‘bled black and orange’.”
Leo Men, many of them his former players, were prominent among the mourners at Mr. Foster’s well-attended funeral at St. Thomas More Church on Saturday, Nov. 30. They sang the Leo Fight Song as his casket was loaded into the hearse for the trip to Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.