FRANKLIN – Befitting his low-key style, former Gov. Mike Foster received a simple sendoff, complete with military honors, at his hometown cemetery here Wednesday in St. Mary Parish.
Foster’s family and dozens of friends and political luminaries attended the 20-minute funeral service at the Franklin Cemetery, following a small private ceremony at his antebellum home, Oaklawn Manor.
Foster, who died of natural causes Sunday at 90, was buried in an oak casket in a cement vault under a sprawling live oak.
“This was exactly the kind of funeral he would have wanted,” former Gov. Bobby Jindal, who owed his start in Louisiana politics to Foster, said in an interview afterward. “He never wanted to come to Baton Rouge when he was governor. Why would he want to come to Baton Rouge for his funeral? He didn’t like crowds and all the attention.”
Foster, who was governor from 1996 to 2004, didn’t want a large memorial service at the State Capitol.
Gov. John Bel Edwards was the only speaker in Franklin.
Edwards, who didn’t know Foster well, recounted his accomplishments as governor – the creation of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarship program, the formation of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, repeated pay raises for K-12 teachers and more than $1 billion to upgrade the state’s colleges and universities.
Foster first won election in 1995 running as an anti-crime, Christian conservative. But as governor, a Republican working with a majority-Democrat Legislature, Foster, who had switched parties during the campaign, found a way to deliver for both sides.
Members of the Louisiana National Guard honored Foster – who had been their commander as governor and was a pilot during the Korean War – with a three-volley salute, a rendering of “Taps” and a ceremonial folding of the American flag that had been draped over his coffin. A National Guard officer kneeled down and handed it to Foster’s widow, Alice, who was sitting under an awning with Foster’s two children from a previous marriage, Murphy and Ramelle, and with two of her children from a previous marriage, Paul and Troy West.
Foster’s grandsons, the pallbearers, then lifted the casket over the cement vault. The Rev. Stephen Crawford, the priest at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, where Foster worshipped, tossed drops of water onto the casket and said a few words.
Jimmie Daniel, the owner of Daniel Granite, then lowered the casket into the vault.
“He got with me years ago to put the cement vault into the ground,” Daniel said after the service. “We called him Uncle Mike.”
Among those attending the service were Hunt Downer and Charlie DeWitt, who served as speakers of the House during Foster’s first and second terms, respectively; Stephen Perry, who served as chief of staff for most of Foster’s tenure, and Andy Kopplin, who replaced Perry for the final 1 ½ years; Roy Fletcher, Foster’s campaign media adviser; and Vic Stelly, who as a state representative authored the “Stelly plan,” approved by voters in 2002, which generated extra tax revenue by shifting the tax burden from the poor to higher-income taxpayers.
Since Foster died, former aides have been telling and re-telling their favorite stories.
Perry remembered how Foster called him every weekday between 6 a.m. and 6:15 a.m., after reading The Advocate and while he was on the treadmill. “We would talk about what the press was interested in and the issues of the day,” Perry said.
Angele Davis, who served as deputy commissioner of administration, recalled how the senior staff would be sure to listen to Foster’s weekly radio show, called “Live Mike,” because he might say something unexpected in response to a caller.
“If he didn’t know the answer to something, he would say, ‘I’ve got people listening. They’ll take care of that,’” Davis said.
Kevin Cunningham, who served as Foster’s assistant chief of staff, remembered how Foster met with senators when he took office and introduced them to his senior staff.
“He said he would support our decisions when we made them,” Cunningham said. “He also said, ‘If they make too many mistakes, I’ll change them out.’ He empowered his people to do the right thing. He allowed them the latitude to do it. But at the end of the day, you were responsible for getting it right.”
Terry Landry, whom Foster named as the first Black superintendent of State Police for his second term, said the governor frequently faced questions from political leaders and others about Landry’s decisions.
“He would ask, ‘What did Terry say’? After being told, he would say, ‘That’s the way it is. He runs State Police.’ I could make a decision that I thought was right.”
His aides also remembered his unpretentious, lighter side.
“Joe’s Bar. What do you need?” he would sometimes joke when he picked up his private phone in the governor’s office.
Marsanne Golsby, who served as his press secretary, remembered how Foster got a kick out of startling visitors to his New Orleans hotel suite during the 2002 Southern Republican governors’ conference. Visitors set off an electronic tripwire that launched a recording of barking dogs.
Perry remembered how then-President George W. Bush, who had become friends with Foster when the two went rabbit hunting when Bush was Texas’ governor, once turned the tables on Foster.
Bush called from Air Force One and hemmed and hawed before noting that Mike and Alice Foster had recently spent the night at the White House.
“The only way to tell you is that some silverware is missing,” the president finally said.
Foster’s eyes got big, Perry recalled. “He looked at me. Then we all burst out laughing. Bush was howling. He was just prank calling from Air Force One like a fraternity brother. That was the kind of relationship they had.”
Golsby remembered how she went to Foster early in his first term to discuss an anti-gay piece of legislation that concerned her.
During their conversation, Foster, without making a fuss, made Golsby aware that he knew she was gay and that he was fully supportive of it.
Later, when Golsby was alerted that a state match for HIV/AIDS funding was being cut in the state budget, she mentioned it to Foster.
“He had the money put back in the budget,” Golsby said. “There are gay people alive today because of that.”