February 14, 2019 | Lisa Diaz Nash
I recently spoke with Mr. T. Jack Foster, Jr., the son of Mr. T. Jack Foster Sr., and, with his father and two brothers, the brains and vision behind the creation of what we now know as Foster City. Mr. Foster, or “T. Jack,” as his friends call him, is a long time Baywood Knolls resident who recently celebrated his 90th birthday. He has a great sense of humor and always was ready with a laugh about a great memory or self-deprecating story (note my editorial comments throughout). He was a gracious host and generous with his time for this interview.
Lisa Diaz Nash (LDN): Mr. Foster, how long have you lived in Baywood Knolls in this beautiful Foster Tower? You must have the best view in all of San Mateo!
T. Jack Foster (TJF): I moved into this building about 40 years ago. I was the first tenant. And, yes, the view is pretty special. You can see from San Francisco to Oakland and all the way down past the San Mateo Bridge.
My brother and I developed this building. We were developers. After we finished Foster City, we were looking for our next project. We were shown this lot in San Mateo. We liked it, bought it, developed it and here we are!
LDN: Was San Mateo different then?
TJF: There was the Ben Franklin Hotel. This apartment house up the street also was here. There were a number of high rises already here, but a lot more people live here now.
LDN: What was it like in Baywood when you moved in here 40 years ago?
TJF: Well, it seems to me not to be too different. Lots of interesting people doing interesting things. It was a pleasant downtown to be in, and it still is. Central Park is such a good place for families to enjoy.
LDN: Tell us about your children.
TJF: I have a son in Foster City. His two children are adults now. They don’t live here. My daughter lives in Atlanta, after living here for many years. She has two grown children. My youngest son, Mark, lives in Granite Bay. He does contracting in this area, so he’s up here a lot. He stays with me when he’s here, which is great. I love having him.
LDN: What was your life like growing up?
TJF: I was born and raised in Norman, Oklahoma, where the University is located. The University was always a big part of my life. When I was a kid, my best friends were kids of professors. My folks were graduates of the University and so very active in University affairs. University of Oklahoma always has been very special to me. And of course, when I graduated from Norman High School, many of my friends and I went to the University of Oklahoma at Norman.
While I was in college, I also had been in ROTC. Things were kind of busy then, so I was called to active officer duty as soon as I graduated in 1951. I spent two years in Albuquerque, New Mexico at Kirkland Air Force Base. Because I majored in Finance, they made me a Finance Officer. My main job was to pay the troops and keep them happy (said with a chuckle).
LDN: I bet all the troops would have said you had the most important job! So how did you get into real estate development from there?
TJF: After two years in the Air Force, I left. My dad did many different types of businesses and, by that time, had gotton into the real estate development business. He was headquartered in Oklahoma but was doing development in many different places. One of the places was Honolulu. His partner was in charge of that. So, when I got out of the Air Force, Dad thought I should learn the business by going over there.
LDN: So what did you think of moving all the way to Honolulu?
TJF: I loved it (chuckle)! Soon after I got there, I met this wonderful lady who also had gone to the University of Oklahoma. Her name was Patricia. We married and had our first two children in Hawaii.
LDN: It’s like going half way around the world to meet the girl next door!
TJF: That’s exactly right (smile). We really didn’t know each other at university, even though we were there at the same time. We had a wonderful marriage (smile). Sadly, she died in 2010. But we had a long and happy marriage and three wonderful kids.
LDN: What was it like for your kids growing up in Hawaii?
TJF: They went to the beach all the time. They had a very good childhood (chuckle).
LDN: So what happened next?
TJF: My dad bought his partner out and put me in charge (shook his head and laughed ruefully). I had been there just two years, and was only in my mid-20’s. My dad told me, “I’m buying my partner out, but we’re going to continue doing business here. I’m putting you in charge. I blanched and said, “Dad, I’m still learning this business.” He said, “Well, son, back in Oklahoma, you know how the farmers teach their kids how to swim, don’t you?” I said, “Yes, Dad, they throw them in the water.” “That’s right, son, they throw them in and that’s how they learn how to swim.” I said, “I have one question, Dad.” “What’s that, son?” “Did any of those farmers let their kids drown?” “He said no, and I won’t let you drown either!” (recounted with a big smile).
LDN: That was definitely starting off in the deep end!
TJF: That was only the beginning. When we developed Foster City, I was the project manager. I was only about 32.
LDN: Now, when you see all these young people starting companies in Silicon Valley, I bet you say “What’s new?”
TJF: That’s right. So what?! (smile, chuckle and big laugh).
LDN: So, what happened next?
TJF: Well, we were scattered all over. My dad had moved to California. My brother, Dick, was in Texas. My brother, Bob, was in Oklahoma. Dad said, “Come on, let’s get together in California and see if there is a project we all can work on together.” So, we all got together in California and looked up and down the State. Someone told us about Brewer’s Island, where Foster City is today. We decided we liked it and would see if we could make it happen. We did!
LDN: Brewer Island, at that time, was just a marsh island, right?
TJF: Yes, it was in the mud flats. About 1900, the owner of the mud flats built levees there to let the inside dry out because he wanted to grow hay for cattle. He built a big hay field and also had a dairy on the property. So that’s how it got separated from the San Francisco Bay. Those levees are the same levees that are protecting Foster City today. They are over 100 years old.
LDN: What did your father, you and your brothers see in Brewer Island that made you decide this was the project you wanted to develop, instead of something somewhere else?
TJF: Here was this parcel of 4 sq. miles of vacant land in the midst of the Bay Area, with several million people living there. It was so unique to have such a huge piece of vacant land there. So, anyway, we researched it, found we could buy it, and did. It was important to us to develop the project so that many more people could live in the area and raise their families here.
LDN: There are so many families in Foster City today.
TJF: Yes, it’s so great to see so many happy families in Foster City now. There are so many great parks, and so many ducks (big laugh!) there.
LDN: How long did it take to plan the Foster City design?
TJF: We had everything on a fast track. Matter of fact, we took an option on the land. We started doing the work while we still only had an option on it. Then when we exercised the option, we were able to hit the ground running and start developing right away.
We used local architects. I was the project manager, but that didn’t mean I was the boss…that was always Dad (smile). But I was the day to day boss. We had a good-sized weekly meeting every Friday with the engineers to make sure all the bases were being covered. I’d say the rest of the time, we were getting ready for the Friday meeting, or carrying out what we’d decided at the Friday meeting. I wrote a book about the development of Foster City later on to capture all of that.
LDN: How long did it take to build Foster City?
TJF: We bought the property in 1960. We actually had the first family moving in in 1964.
LDN: That’s incredible. It took us almost that long to do the renovation on the home we live in now in San Mateo!
TJF: Yes, it was awfully fast. But we paid close attention to all the details along the way. The building where our company was headquartered was the first office building to go up in Foster City.
LDN: Do you get over to Foster City a lot these days?
TJF: Oh, yes. As I said, one of my sons lives there. There’s a statue of my father in front of City Hall. That makes us proud.
LDN: You and I met at the San Mateo Rotary Club. You have been a Rotarian for many years. Where did you join Rotary?
LDN: In San Mateo?
TJF: Yes. It’s the only Rotary Club I’ve ever belonged to.
LDN: That’s impressive. Did the San Mateo Rotary Club always meet at the same place?
TJF: Over the years, we’ve changed our meeting locale. It used to be in the Ben Franklin Hotel which is now Draper University. I can look at it now from my apartment. Then, over time, it moved from one place to another. But it’s been at the Poplar Creek Grill at Poplar Creek Golf Course for a long period of time.
Our San Mateo Rotary Club is a great group of people. The Club has stayed on its toes and kept ahead of changing trends, which a lot of clubs haven’t.
LDN: What is it about Rotary that you like?
TJF: I like the ambience and the attitude of everybody.
LDN: And they throw good birthday parties. I was there when they threw your 90th birthday party.
TJF: Yes, that was quite a show (big laugh)! There are good speakers at Rotary every week and it’s a great way to get to know a variety of people in town. It makes you feel part of the community.
LDN: Last question, Mr. Foster. What would you tell people about what you think the future of San Mateo might hold?
TJF: Well, assuming the world doesn’t collapse (smile), this area will stay a vital part of the world. And it’s such a beautiful part of the world. It’s a great place all around and I’m so happy to live here!