Former department chair remembered for sense of humor

Longtime UNA English professor Bill Foster, 73, died Sept. 7 at Vanderbilt Hospital after suffering a stroke Sept. 2.

In his 39-year career at UNA, Foster earned his reputation as a modern renaissance man. But Foster—scholar, teacher, linguist, musician, actor, storyteller and writer—also earned a reputation among those close to him as a comedian.

His daughter, Melissa, a UNA graduate, said he passed humor down to her.

“He was such an excellent smart aleck,” she said. “I think we’re both fluent in that, and I’m quite proud of it.”

One of the key founders of UNA’s storytelling festival, Foster was known for his funny storytelling, said Dana Burbank, English department administrative assistant and Foster’s former coworker.

“He had a wicked sense of humor,” she said.

Foster’s son, Will, a UNA graduate, said people would stop by his father’s office for five minutes and stay two hours.

“He’s always had this extremely inviting personality—doesn’t matter who you are,” he said. “He just loved people.”

Both Melissa and Will said their father always did things differently.

“In junior high, I’d skip lunch once a week and go eat  with him at the sandwich shop on campus,” Will said.

Burbank said sometimes she would have to wave through a cloud of blue smoke when she went into his office.

“Before Willingham was renovated, he would smoke his pipe in the building with the windows shut—even though he wasn’t supposed to,” she said, laughing.

Foster could often be spotted outside Willingham Hall, Melissa said.

“He would get to campus early—around 5:30 or 6 (a.m.)—and he had these benches out front,” she said. “You could find him early in the mornings out there with his coffee and his pipe just enjoying the beauty of campus. He’d usually have someone from the police or maintenance come join him.”

Foster was dedicated to his university, said Larry Adams, current chair of the English department.

“I knew him for 30 years or longer,” he said. “We were friends, and we worked together to start the ESL program on campus. Bill was very knowledgeable, and he had several hobbies he invested an unbelievable amount of time, effort and research into.”

Adams said Foster played a large part in developing his department.

“He always did what he thought was best for the department and built it up to the largest on campus,” he said.

Foster was proud to be associated with UNA, Melissa said.

“He was an absolute man of honor and a fantastic ambassador for the university,” she said. “He bragged on UNA all over the country and all over the world.”

Foster is perhaps best remembered for bringing his bluegrass with him wherever he went.

“I joke that my first two years at UNA were spent rocking out to the banjo in his office,” Burbank said. “He’d say ‘Dana, get in here,’ and I’d go in his office and listen to him playing banjo, guitar or just singing.”