February, 2013, Kooyong Tennis Club, Melbourne, Australia
On behalf of Mum Peter and Catherine I’d like to thank Andrew Terry and Bill for their thoughts and recollections of the bloke generally known as Jake, Big Fella, Large and for some just John. You have been mates in the way that Fred Flintstone always described Barney Rubble: asbosom buddies, lifelong friends and pals.
Dad as many of you know was not a great talker – and certainly not about himself. One of his favourite sayings, and you have already heard a few of them from Peter and Catherine, was that all trouble comes from the mouth. And so it was thus when I suggested to him last year that I write down the story of his life there being so much I and we don’t know. My attempts at actually asking him questions were dead in the water from the start so I decided to email him. I said I would send him a random question a day which he could then answer expansively at his leisure. I sent 3 questions and got two answers. I asked him why he was sent to Geelong Grammar. His reply was that he had a pillow fight with Junior and Ella came upstairs and said you are going to Geelong. To the question about how he got into water polo from swimming he said “Brighton had a water polo team and it was a bit of fun to throw the ball around after miles of laps”. And that was that.
So this is some of the story I would have written though it would have been much better with his help.
John Lewis Foster was born in 1931 as you know. Unlike most of us he didn’t know the actual date of his birth until he had to apply for a passport to go to the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. His parents Judge Alfred William Foster of the Cth Arbitration Court and his former socialite mother Ella Wilhelmina Jones obviously thought it not important to tell him. I don’t know if his siblings Junior, here today, Joy and Douglas were similarly uninformed.
Dad went to Geelong for his secondary schooling after the aforementioned pillow fight. He excelled at swimming and tennis and high jumping. At some point he went to Taylors before getting into medicine. One of his memories of Geelong which he always referred to as School was that during the war, when the gardeners had gone off to fight, he and John Landy were tasked with weeding the oval. He used to sit next to Rupert Murdoch in class and describes him then as being a socialist!
Dad’s tennis took him to Eastbourne as Peter mentioned which was no mean accomplishment. He played waterpolo in the 1952 and 1956 Olympic Games and at one stage was named as a member of the world’s best team – the only Australian to be so selected. He was famously photographed by the Sun tending to an injured player during the fiery Russia v Hungary match in 1956.
In the 60s and 70s Dad worked hard and built up his medical practice to be the biggest practice in town and Mum recounted the other day for the first time (Dad never told us) the story of how Bob Ansett came to see him. Bob had asked around and found out that Dad was the busiest ophthalmologist so it was to him he came reasoning that the busiest is probably the best. He continued to play tennis and water polo with his mates until he simply decided not to.
Mum met Dad in 1953 at an intervarsity in Brisbane where they were both competing. They married in 1958, their 55th anniversary being 4th January this year. They lived in a flat in Armadale before leaving for the wide open spaces of Camberwell until 1996 when the move was made to Port Melbourne. Dad was attracted to the area by the initial idea of canals from the development into the bay where he could putter about his in his boat and fish. From 1962 we had the house at Anglesea which survived the 1967 bushfires. A new house was later built over the road and it was reduced to rubble on Ash Wednesday 1983. The current place rose up in time for Christmas that year. He’d spend time on the beach and out the back where they’re big and green with sometimes only me, Garth Manton and Huey for company. He enjoyed being at the barbeque which he’d sit at for hours on end even in the freezing cold. Fishing in his boat with Larry Elam and Mal Seccull drinking many of those large cans of Fosters known as depth chargers; gar fishing at Roadknight as Andrew mentioned and sometimes taking us up the Anglesea River or out to sea in the tinny, all properly be-lifejacketed in his safety first way. He loved Anglesea and I am sure when he left to come back to town on 16th January this year he knew he’d never go back.
When we were little kids we’d get into bed with Dad on weekend mornings and he’d tell us about the fantabulous adventures of Mary and Jackie, characters whose stories he made up as he went along. We spent time in the pool and occasionally he’d come with us to swimming at the Camberwell or Ashburton pools or play tennis with us at Kooyong, though not often. We would go to the old South Pacific – where the sun burnt the sand and therefore your feet and the air reeked of Coppertone – where he played water polo and we’d dare ourselves to jump into the deep wary of the sharks on the other side of the cage.
Dad was keen on seat belts in the car before they became mandatory. He gave us fluoride tablets before the water was fluoridated. He did fun things including his magic-moo trick when he’d produce blocks of chocolate from under the seat on the way to Anglesea. On numerous occasions we’d be on the road and he’d flap his arms and say we were Benzing Along. Once he flapped his arms really hard and said we were about to do the ton: 100mph on the Geelong Road which was exciting and naughty.
We had family trips to Manly when we were little – firstly because I had come home from school and whinged that I’d never been on a plane – and then to Surfers andMooloolaba from time to time. Our last family holiday was to Hawaii in 1976 when Dad went to a medical conference.
Dad rarely came to watch any of us play sport. Before we headed off to tennis or swimming or netball or whatever he’d simply saythink of your father there’s only one place to be. We all knew what that meant. He would occasionally come to watch me and Peter at our national championships. In 1984 Mum came to watch me in Tasmania and he went to the Gold Coast to watch Peter. As he bought Peter a kayak he put in money to enable me and Sue Chapman to row in our own wonderful pair with great success. He came to both Olympic Games and as Peter has said Dad couldn’t bear to watch our races. In my case he had to ask Patsy Patten how we’d gone. We had fundraising and homecoming events for the Games here at Kooyong and they were such happy occasions. It is different to be here for something not so happy.
He was very proud when our family was acknowledged as the only one in Australia to have had 3 Olympians in 3 different sports. He would have been just as pleased to know what John Coates AOC President has written to me: As a twice Olympian and father of two Olympic medallists John will not only be remembered for the fine man he was but also in Australian Olympic history as patriarch of one our greatest Olympic families
Dad sold his medical practice in 2000 without a plan. The last 12 years were effectively wasted. He spent much time on his computer reading blogs and newsletters and emailing jokes to and from friends. It is apparent, having used his computer since he died, that he was using 2 fingers with version 1 of windows – we now understand why he spent all day at the bloody thing. He was also a great reader and those 2 occupations consumed most of his time. He loved world war 2 books and it was with sadness that I walked past the airport shopthat always had a good stock the week before he died knowing there was no point me going to check out what he might like.
It is sad that Dad didn’t take advantage of his new time to use all the skills and experiences he had accumulated over the years in sport and medicine or to take part in the café and beach life of Port Melbourne. He was president of Kooyong from 1980 to 1984 (I loved being able to use the presidential carpark to watch the Open). He was the leader of Kooyong for its Members which Terry has spoken about. When we were at Camberwell he was behind a group that lobbied against the development of flats. He was tempted to stand for Hawthorn in the 70s but his shyness, plus a plunge in income, in the end stopped him from taking that step. With John Cain and Nigel Gray he conspired to work to reduce the incidence of smoking the results of which we continue to see. (Catherine got short shrift when she and Jenny Ramsden were sprung having a fag one day). He became enthused about a beach saving product called Seascape and travelled to Cape Hatteras to research it. He lobbied the shire council at Anglesea to keep the old reservoir full of water for fire fighting purposes. He saved the sight and lives of many of his friends, all without fanfare. But with retirement and no plan all of this activity came to a full stop.
Whilst Dad didn’t show us much overt affection there was no doubt that he loved his dogs. Firstly Tiggott, then Tiggotty Two and lastly Linka and Maya the golden retrievers. He just loved the impudent, large and lazy Linky. A favourite memory is being at Miles Better Beach: we would take the dogs 100m down the beach and Dad would stand up and wave his arms over his head and the dogs would tear back to him so happy to see him and he them. That’s why they were in the death notice so please be relieved if you thought there were 2 dead children out there somewhere. He always called the dogs by their names but rarely us. I don’t think he ever called me Margot but forever M. Catherine has as she said was always Lamby and Peter WBB (World’s Best Boy) when young. In public he would call Mum Elizabeth but at home she was always Ya Mother , Loved One or Adored but mostly just Loved.
Dad was as he was, a function of his dysfunctional upbringing. A shy man but one with enormous talent and application, a friend to many and one who once loved a party, having Carly Simon and Linda Ronstadt on out loud and even rock concerts including the Beatles in 1964. He hated his height for some reason and as he got older seemed to become less able to deal with little old ladies coming up to him at Probus saying ooh you’re so tall. The only time his height was unremarkable was when he was at rowing regattas.
During his retirement he began to withdraw more and more and the decline probably began about 4 years ago. It was then that he and mum stopped going to Noosa for their annual few weeks. The 4WD adventures which they both loved had ceased some time before that.
Dad would not have lived as long as he did without mum and not just since he has been crook. They both knew that. Mum has always been there putting up with his good and bad, the drinking and sometimes the horrible. He would have been a sadder and lonelier man without her energy, enthusiasm, tolerance and when it came to the final crunch her ability to ensure that his every need and demand were met. She has truly been amazing and I am sure he knew it and appreciated it even if it was not within him to say it out loud more than occasionally over the past 60 years.
In many ways Dad has been absent for some time. He was the only Dad I had and I just wish that his last few years could have been happier and more fulfilled though he was the master of his own fate and didn’t bother with the dictum doctor heal thyself.. I am proud to say that this successful, handsome, generous and distinguished man, who acted without hubris so often and who provided so well for us was my father. I am very sad he is gone and miss very much the idea of Dad as he was in his best years which could’ve, would’ve , should’ve been that Dad to the end – for his sake. Had he hada last word he would no doubt have said what he always said when exiting an occasion “I am not here”.
He is not here.