Public relations legend, dedicated alumnus Larry Foster dies

Larry Foster, the Penn State alumnus who was named one of the top public relations professionals of the 20th century and who helped change the University’s approach to philanthropy, died Thursday, Oct. 17. He was 88.

Foster earned his journalism degree at Penn State in 1948 and started his career as a newspaper reporter, becoming a bureau chief and editor at the Bergen (N.J.) Record and The Newark (N.J.) News.

His journalism background served him well at Johnson & Johnson, which he joined in 1957 to form the company’s first public relations department. Foster worked for the company for 33 years, rising to corporate vice president of public relations.

In 1982, following the death of seven people in Chicago after they ingested Tylenol laced with cyanide, Foster led Johnson & Johnson’s highly acclaimed response to the crime, which remains unsolved 31 years later.

The response included an immediate recall of the product, bringing back 32 million packages of Tylenol at a total cost of $125 million, and the eventual re-introduction of pain-relief medication to the marketplace.

His always calm, ever-honest style -- which he said was shaped by an ethical approach and the journalism basics of fairness and objectivity that were honed during his years at Penn State -- enabled Johnson & Johnson to endure the potentially catastrophic situation and emerge even stronger. He provided the same leadership with a similar incident in 1986.

When Foster joined Johnson & Johnson in 1957, the company was worth $300 million. By the time he retired in 1990, it was worth $10 billion.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, but there was no discussion about the cost,” Foster told Penn State students when discussing the 1982 Tylenol case in 2006. In addition, the always humble and understated Foster focused on more than just that incident when discussing his career.

“While Tylenol stands in a class by itself as being one of the best-known crises in American business, in the growth of the company there are a lot of other things where you have an opportunity to contribute. Yes, it was a huge event, but in my eyes being able to head public relations when a company grows 40 times larger, to me that’s much more important than being head of public relations during Tylenol.”

PRWeek magazine named Foster one of the 10 most influential public relations professionals of the 20th century.

VIDEO: Foster discusses giving to Penn State

VIDEO: Foster addresses the "Page Principles"

Similar to his career at Johnson & Johnson, a long-term view helps inform Foster’s legacy at Penn State.

Foster was born and raised in New Jersey. Shortly after entering high school, he decided to become a journalist and began writing for area newspapers. After graduation in 1943, he entered New York University and then transferred to Penn State, where he eventually served as managing editor of The Daily Collegian.

It was also at Penn State that Foster met his wife, Ellen (’49), and his loyalty to both her and the University never waned during more than six decades.

Foster became president of the Penn State Club of Northern New Jersey in the 1960s and was elected president of the Penn State Alumni Association in 1972. During his term with the Alumni Association, he helped create the Alumni Fellows Program.

From 1980 to 1989, he was elected by Penn State alumni to three terms as a member of the Board of Trustees. He was named a Distinguished Alumnus in 1979 and received the 1999 Lion’s Paw Award for service to the University. 

Beyond awards and service, Foster was a man of ideas and passion. He enjoyed making connections among people -- and especially with connections that served to benefit Penn State students or the University as a whole.

“Larry Foster is known to many of our key volunteers and donors as the 'Father of Philanthropy' at Penn State,” said Rod Kirsch, senior vice president for development and alumni relations at Penn State. “It was Larry, and a handful of others, who strongly advocated that the University more actively and strategically engage our alumni family in fundraising. He was passionate, visionary and generous, serving Penn State tirelessly over many decades. Much of Penn State's success in alumni support can be traced to Larry's early encouragement and involvement. We have lost a great Penn Stater.”

Through the years, the Fosters supported a number of Penn State programs, including Intercollegiate Athletics and University Libraries, where, among other things, they endowed the Foster Librarian in Communications and enabled the creation of Foster Auditorium in Paterno Library.

Still, the majority of their support was directed toward the College of Communications.

“Any words to try to summarize the Fosters’ impact would be an understatement,” said Dean Doug Anderson. “Larry and Ellen have, through their personal generosity, supported students, faculty, programs and facilities. The spectrum of their impact is incredible.”

The Fosters provided funds to endow the Larry and Ellen Foster Professorship in Writing and Editing and to support the twice-a-year Foster-Foreman Conference of Distinguished Writers; they contributed generously to enhance Carnegie Building’s lobby, main conference room and student services area; they created the Lawrence G. and Ellen M. Foster Scholarship endowment; they endowed two Trustee Scholarships; and they provided a lead gift to establish the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication, which is housed in the College of Communications.

In addition to the Fosters’ personal gifts to the College of Communications, which total more than $2 million, Larry was instrumental in securing contributions from individuals, foundations and trusts for the Page Center, totaling more than $4 million.

“The impact that the Fosters’ generosity has had on the College is unparalleled and strategically invested,” Anderson said. “To say that Larry Foster is the godfather of the modern-day College of Communications would be an understatement.”

Foster did more than direct money to the college, though. The annual Donor and Scholarship Recognition Dinner in the College of Communications was a fixture on the calendar for Larry and Ellen. They especially enjoyed meeting students supported by their scholarship funds.

They also regularly attended the Foster-Foreman Conference of Distinguished Writers, which has brought 39 Pulitzer Prize winners to campus to present free public lectures for students since its inception in 1999. In 2012, because of the growth of the program under Gene Foreman, the inaugural Foster Professor, Foster insisted that the conference be renamed to reflect Foreman’s contributions as well.

“My association with Larry Foster was a highlight of my immensely satisfying second career as a professor at Penn State,” Foreman said. “It was a privilege, of course, to teach in the name of this renowned professional who had accomplished so much in his own career. In addition, I was deeply impressed with Larry’s love for Penn State and his generosity in supporting Penn State students. A shining example of that love and generosity was his enthusiastic support for the conference of distinguished writers that we started with part of the endowment for the Foster Professorship.

“We had envisioned bringing top journalists to Penn State once a year to share their wisdom with our students. After the first event in 1999, Larry insisted that this was an initiative that needed to be repeated every semester, and he dug into his pocket for the extra money to make it happen. As Larry often reminded me, we would have succeeded if our speakers could inspire just one student at each conference. The evidence is abundantly clear that this goal has been far surpassed, and the journalistic success of countless Penn State graduates is a lasting tribute to Larry Foster.“

Students appreciated their interactions with Foster, too. They consistently asked him questions about his career and about current issues in public relations. Students in public relations named the on-campus chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America the Lawrence G. Foster Chapter. And Foster sponsored a national excellence award for students through the overarching Public Relations Society of America.

Foster brought his passion and vision to all aspects of the College, including the Page Center, which was created in 2004 thanks to a lead gift from the Fosters. Along with that, Foster encouraged other individuals, companies, foundations and trusts to support the center named for Arthur W. Page, the first public relations professional to serve as an officer and director of a major public corporation. At AT&T from 1927 to 1947, Page crafted guidelines for ethical and effective communication with the public and for responsible corporate behavior. They became known as the “Page Principles.”

“I have never known anyone more loyal to Penn State and more dedicated to advancing integrity in the public sphere than Larry,” said John S. Nichols, founding director of the Page Center and professor emeritus. “His passion later in life was to merge the two, and the Page Center was the means of doing that. Thanks to his leadership and generosity, Larry’s passion lives on through the work of the center.”

Marie Hardin, associate dean for undergraduate and graduate education and the current director of the Page Center, agreed.

“Larry Foster is the reason the Page Center exists and the reason it has thrived,” she said. “The center was his idea. He saw the need for an enterprise that would focus on ethics in public communication and would become an agenda-setter on a national level. The center has been fueled by his vision and sustained by his tireless fundraising efforts.”

Foster envisioned the marriage of the nation’s largest accredited communications program and legacy of a public relations giant whose reputation was based on ethical behavior as something that could benefit professionals, researchers and students.

Anderson said he was “immediately intrigued” when Foster first suggested the idea to establish an academic center that would emphasize the importance of integrity in public communication. “But, in my wildest imagination, I never thought, at least then, that what would become the Page Center would evolve into what it is today. It all came together because Larry had a well-thought-out plan. I’ve never known anyone as visionary and simultaneously as pragmatic.”

Professionally, the accolade from PRWeek was just part of Foster’s long list of accomplishments. He was the recipient of four of the highest awards in public relations: the 1989 Gold Anvil Award from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), for contributions to the profession; the 1998 Atlas Award from PRSA, for lifetime achievement in international public relations; the Hall of Fame Award from the Arthur W. Page Society in 1994; and the Institute for Public Relations’ Alexander Hamilton Medal for lifetime achievement in 2007.

“When you ask about the giants of corporate communications, Larry Foster is usually one of the first persons named,” said Penn State President Rodney Erickson. “There are many textbook cases built on Larry’s long and successful career based on his commitment to honesty and integrity. Larry also gave back to Penn State with his time, talents and treasure. Always willing to share his knowledge with students and faculty alike, Larry understood the importance of fundamental principles that guide communications strategies. Larry and Ellen also appreciated the importance of scholarships to attract outstanding students, the need for education in new media and the key role that faculty support in the form of professorships plays in building a world-class faculty.”

Following his retirement from Johnson & Johnson in 1990, Foster wrote the biography of Robert Wood Johnson, the man who built Johnson & Johnson from a family business into a global enterprise. They had worked together for nine years, and Foster was intrigued by Johnson's business philosophy and the company's credo that placed the interests of the customer first.

The widely acclaimed book, “Robert Wood Johnson: The Gentleman Rebel,” was distributed to every public and college library in the nation, 14,000 in all, by the New Jersey Historical Society and the Robert Wood Johnson 1962 Charitable Trust. Foster also wrote “Robert Wood Johnson and His Credo, A Living Legacy” (2008), a condensation of the earlier work, and “A Company That Cares” (1986), the 100-year history of Johnson & Johnson.

Foster was predeceased by a brother, Donald Foster. He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Ellen; brother Kenneth Foster; daughter Cynthia Falck and husband Brian; son David Foster and wife Lucy; daughter Nanci Carlson and husband Carl; son Gregg Foster and wife Sandra; son Dr. Lawrence G. Foster III and wife Patricia; 10 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

A funeral mass will be held 10 a.m. Monday, Oct. 21, at The Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity, 315 1st St., Westfield, N.J. Burial will be private. In lieu of flowers, contributions would be appreciated to the Central PA Food Bank, 3908 Corey Road, Harrisburg, Pa. 17109, or the charity of your choosing.

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Last Updated July 11, 2014