WW II vet’s rich life yields a century’s worth of stories

Foster at 98 years old in front of the view from his Jefferson City, Missouri, home.

Charles Foster tells the story of his life. It is impactful — both the telling and the life itself. Foster made his mark and changed the world for the better as a decorated veteran, educator, coach and father. At 98 years old, Foster is still young at heart, actively sharing his story as one of the last heroes of World War II.

Foster was born on a small Missouri farm near Kansas City. He moved to Gerster, Missouri, after his father accepted a new job. There, he finished seventh grade and then moved once more and graduated from high school in Weaubleau, Missouri. He attended Missouri State University in Springfield for two years as a collegiate athlete, and then moved to Illinois, where he worked as a restaurant cook — a position Foster believes helped him in his military career. The end of his two years as a cook coincided with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“My best friend was killed on the USS Oklahoma in Pearl Harbor,” Foster said.

Foster immediately wanted to join the army, but needed  parental approval because he did not meet the age requirement. His father eventually approved. Ten days before he turned 21, Foster shipped off to join the Army.

While deployed in the army during World War II, Foster enjoyed hunting on his days off.

His first assignment was part of the North Africa campaign. Events from this period of his life are highlighted by meeting Winston Churchill and barely escaping being put in harm’s way at the Battle of Normandy.

“We got to Africa and I had no records,” Foster said. “I was a man with no country.”

Many of Foster’s friends moved to a different unit and encouraged him to do the same.

“The outfit I was with went into Normandy and were all killed,” he said. “They didn’t even make it to land.”

Foster’s last role in the Army was as a mess sergeant. With his previous experience in the food industry, he quickly won the men over with his homemade apple cobbler.

When it was his time to go home in 1945, he faced one last battle. While leaving Naples, Italy, he was caught in a hurricane on a ship.

“I remember thinking to myself, here I’ve survived the war and now I’m going to die in this hurricane,” Foster said.

Foster reunited with his family on Nov. 24, 1945. When he got home, he was actively looking for his next venture.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it back alive, and so I had no plans to do anything after I got out of the service,” Foster said.

A friend offered him the chance to run a frozen food locker, then Foster decided to build one himself. Fate stepped in once again to take his life a different direction.

His mother told Foster she was praying for him to become a teacher. If the Lord didn’t want him to be a businessman, he would stop the building of his new food locker and make him a schoolteacher. Because of steel and lumber costs, immediately construction on the building stopped. A few weeks later, a local educator approached Foster. After some convincing, Foster began teaching a business class and coached both boys’ and girls’ sports for $1,600 a year at a local school. 

Eventually, Foster took a job with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and helped to transform Missouri’s education system. He became the director of the Guidance and Counseling Department for DESE and developed the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) test, which transformed standardized testing for schools all over Missouri.

“I wanted a competency test that would show teachers what needs to be worked on in the classroom,” he said.

After retirement, Foster and his wife bought a fifth-wheel camper and set a goal to visit all 50 states. They made it to all of them except Minnesota and Wisconsin before his wife became ill and passed away from cancer.

Foster went on to teach Drug Abuse Resistance Education, at the age of 70, to the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Eighteen years later, he officially retired.

Foster and his family are looking forward to celebrating his 100th birthday. His son said the bar was set so high on Foster’s 90th birthday that on his 100th birthday, “we’ll have to hire a circus!”