Don Foster, retired Columbia Elementary School principal, died Thursday at Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto after battling cancer for more than five years. He was 58.
Foster, of Sonora, retired from Columbia School in 2011. He worked at the school for 13 years, serving as principal for eight.
“During Don’s tenure as principal, Columbia grew in numbers, excelled in student test scores and gained county-wide recognition as a school that truly cares about their students. His leadership was the critical link in that success,” said Columbia School District Superintendent John Pendley.
“Don Foster was an amazing individual who touched the lives of so many people. Columbia School was blessed with his presence, and I was honored to work with him daily. He was a wonderful colleague, a true friend and a man I greatly respected,” Pendley said.
Foster was diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer, called VIPoma, in August 2008.
VIPoma affects only one in 10 million people. He had 85 percent of his pancreas removed in 2009.
Foster’s friends and colleagues agreed his first love was his family and his second was education. Close behind were running and spending time in the outdoors, camping and hiking.
Foster had been a runner since high school, his wife, Karen, said.
Foster ran with friends Cathy Moss, Mike Miller and Sharon Gustafson for many years.
They called themselves the “four musketeers” and participated in many marathons together over the years, Moss said.
“Whenever we ran on long runs, and I spent hours and hours with Don running, he spoke most about his love for his daughters, his grandkids, his wife,” Moss said. “He lived for them. I think that’s why he fought so hard with his disease, because he wanted to spend more time with his family.”
“Don was one of the most honorable, caring and gentle men I have ever known,” Miller said. “Don loved his family and devoted everything to them. He also collected a huge extended family over the years because of his personal, fun and caring ways. And my family is proud to be part of that family.”
Miller first met Foster as his daughter’s kindergarten teacher. They became good friends after Foster was a student teacher in Gustafson’s class at Sonora Elementary.
When a co-worker got leukemia, Foster, Miller, Gustafson and Moss trained together for a benefit marathon.
“He was passionate about education and children both as a teacher and then principal,” Miller said. “He was one of the most loved and respected administrators in the county.”
Foster completed multiple marathons including the California International Marathon and runs in Big Sur, Lake Tahoe and Boston. He even ventured into the world of ultra-marathons, finishing the American River 50-mile run multiple times.
“Our nickname for Don was ‘Soul Man’ because in the middle of a long run he would break into singing,” Miller said. “We agreed it fit him because he really was a wonderful soul.”
“At the end of a 50-mile race he had a tradition of doing a few jumping jacks just to show us he was still feeling good,” Gustafson said.
He was “the premier example of humanity at its finest. His passion for life and caring for others were evident in every role,” Gustafson said. “He taught us all how to live a good life.”
Donald Allen Foster was born Feb. 15, 1956, in Alameda. He grew up in San Lorenzo and graduated from Dublin High School in 1974.
He married his high school sweetheart, Karen Tripp, in 1976, after four years of dating.
“He was the right one and I chose wisely,” Karen Foster said of her husband of 37 years.
Foster studied anthropology at California State University, Hayward, and graduated in 1979. He then got his teaching credential at Stanislaus State University in Turlock.
Foster student-taught at Sonora Elementary. After earning his credential, he taught fourth grade at Tenaya Elementary School in Groveland for one year.
Foster was then hired on at Columbia Elementary, where he taught mostly third and fourth grades and math, his wife said.
“I think he loved sharing his knowledge, especially in math and science,” Karen Foster said. “He said his favorite job was being principal. It broke his heart to leave teaching and Columbia School.”
Foster also enjoyed coaching cross country.
His other big interests were camping and backpacking in the Emigrant Wilderness, Pinecrest and Yosemite.
“Given a choice, he would rather be in the mountains, camping or backpacking with family and friends, sitting around a campfire swapping stories and laughing,” Miller said.
For nearly 20 years, the Fosters, Millers, Gustafsons and Mosses would gather each summer for a camping trip to Lake Tahoe.
Foster also enjoyed yoga and was a health conscious person, Karen Foster said.
“He loved being with his friends and family,” she said. “His children and grandchildren gave him great happiness and optimism for the future.”
In addition to his wife, Foster is survived by daughters and son-in-law, Jennifer and John Flaniken, of Capitola, and Lauren Romeo, of Sonora; grandchildren, Aaron Romeo, of Sonora, and Jack Flaniken, of Capitola; his father, Al Foster, of Copperopolis; siblings, Bill Foster, of Palmdale, Dave Foster, of Antelope, and Judy Gower, of Dublin; his mother-in-law, Blythe Tripp, of Clayton; and numerous nieces and nephews.
He was preceded in death by his mother, Barbara Foster; and his father-in-law, Giles Tripp.
“He lived his life and battled his cancer with courage, strength, patience and faith right up to the very end and we will all miss him,” Miller said.
A celebration of life will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at Columbia Elementary School in the new gymnasium.
In lieu of flowers, a donation in his name may be made to the Caring for Carcinoid Foundation at www.caringforcarcinoid.org.