Gifts permanently endow conference, boost PR award endowment

July 03, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Driven by a passion for providing opportunities for students, alumna Ellen Foster has always acted on her commitment to philanthropy at Penn State.

She ensured many more of those opportunities with her latest gifts — $275,000 to endow the Foster-Foreman Conference of Distinguished Writers and $10,000 as an addition to the Lawrence G. Foster Award for Excellence in Public Relations.

Lawrence and Ellen Foster created the Foster-Foreman Conference of Distinguished Writers in 1999 to bring students together with some of the best reporters and writers in journalism. The Fosters envisioned big public lectures and small-scale interactions as part of the conference, and that’s exactly what has happened the past 18 years.

Ellen Foster’s latest gifts to the University continue a tradition established by she and her husband. Their support of endeavors across the University, including Athletics and University Libraries, has been consistent for decades. The majority of their support has been for academic programs and scholarships in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications. That includes two Trustee Scholarships; the Lawrence G. and Ellen M. Foster Scholarship endowment; and the lead gift to establish the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication, which has grown into an internationally recognized hub of ethical communications study.

Lawrence, who died in 2013, was often the more vocal member of the couple about their support. That was a matter of his profession as a public relations professional, someone considered one of the top public relations professionals of the 20th century. He earned his Penn State degree in 1948 and worked at newspapers before joining Johnson & Johnson to form the company’s first public relations department in 1957. He 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.

While he was more vocal, Ellen, who earned her Penn State degree in 1949, is just as passionate about their philanthropic support. At annual donor recognition dinners, she invariably has questions for students about their goals and even their grades.

In addition, Ellen takes great pride in the many lives the family’s support has impacted. Her latest gifts endow the popular Foster-Foreman Conference in perpetuity and further ensure both the legacy of her husband and the family with support for the PR award presented annually in her husband’s name.

Under the direction of Gene Foreman, the retired Foster Professor of Communications, 41 Pulitzer Prize winners and 10 Penn State alumni have participated in the Foster-Foreman Conference and visited Penn State since its inception. The conference was renamed to include Foreman and recognize his efforts in 2012. A longtime journalist, whose quarter century as managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer ended with the newsroom being named in his honor, Foreman has been the driving force behind the conference since it started.

The next installment of the Foster-Foreman Conference, scheduled for Oct. 18-19, will feature two more Pulitzer Prize winners — Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Lisa Falkenberg of the Houston Chronicle.

Gifts from Penn State’s alumni and friends have been essential to the success of the University’s historic land-grant mission to serve the public good. To fulfill that mission for a new era of rapid change and global connections, the University has begun "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a fast-paced campaign focused on the three key imperatives of a public university. Private support will keep the door to higher education open and enable students to graduate on time and on track to success; create transformative experiences on Penn State campuses and around the globe that tap the full potential of Penn Staters to make a difference; and impact the world through discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more, visit

Last Updated July 18, 2017