Dr. John

“It is with sad hearts and deep respect that we acknowledge the recent passing of Dr. John Foerster, former Executive Director of St. Boniface Hospital Research, and a veritable pillar in the academic, scientific research, medical and faith communities, both here at home, and internationally.”

I read the subsequent story on my iPhone; published on the website I pioneered and beautifully written by my successor. I felt relief in its reading, knowing that I could not have performed this duty without many a tearful pause.

Dr. Foerster’s professional accomplishments were many and of the highest order, from Head of Medicine (1975) to Director of Research (1987). Under his leadership the Centre flourished from a handful of staff to nearly 200, from 1 cardiovascular group in 1987 to several internationally prominent research teams in infectious diseases, respiratory medicine, nephrology, cardiology, clinical nursing research, cancer research, even sleep research! He was an esteemed member of many associations, winner of awards, and honours including the Order of Canada.

I made my career supporting his vision; early on with overheads and slides, then graphics and PowerPoint presentations. I photographed him often, and my portraits of him were used in many of his publications, in award programs, on plaques honouring him at the Centre, and in newspaper articles. Every picture seen publicly portrayed him in a professional manner, of course, but the smile, or lack thereof, was often elicited by me — and those one-on-one interactions are now precious memories.

After I said “You’re supposed to look professional”. He replied “Don’t I always?”

I loved having lunch with him. On one such occasion he drew a Venn diagram with 3 overlapping circles on a piece of paper. “This is the Research Centre, and this is the Hospital. Do you know what the third circle is? Clinical Research.” Within a few years there was a $30 million clinical research institute on the campus.

Of course not all of his visions came true, or were successful… the Lions Manor Alzheimer’s Disease project and the redevelopment of the south west part of the campus come to mind. But he never stopped dreaming of bigger and better. I recall Harry Schulz, then Director of Business Operations, saying “John, there is a fine line between being a visionary and seeing things”. John’s overall track record speaks for itself.

Of course all of his visions required a/v, and John asked for the moon on a paperboy budget. With his confidence and unwavering support, we produced many promotional videos in support of major projects, from the Age of Discovery campaign to the animated “donor ask” video for what is now the Asper Clinical Research Institute.

Despite his accomplishments, he was a humble, church-going family man. My first formal dinner date with Roula was a Christmas dinner at his house on Assiniboine, in 1989. For many years he took the administrative staff and their spouses to dinner at Hy’s or Dubrovnik, at his personal expense. He personally bought (ok, Gisela may have helped) Christmas gifts for the staff. He told the funniest stories. Once, after closing down a social at 2:00 am, I went to the Centre to back up computer files and found him reviewing patient files at his desk. He cared so deeply about his cancer patients that we worried about him. He always delivered powerful talks to potential donors, and spoke to each and every one who wanted his time. His door was open. He had beautiful penmanship, and wrote detailed thank-you notes, signed “Affectionately, John”. He loved being at the cottage, and absolutely loved and was proud of, his family. He was not fond of bears.

And I believe he cared about me more as a person than an employee.

Roula and Gisela had genuine affection for each other. She is missed too.

John wrote me a note a few years ago, which I framed and display proudly in our home. In it he says “We always loved and admired your family, and I, of course, was so privileged to have Bill as an important and loyal coworker in building the St. B. research enterprise… May God bless you richly.”

John has meant so much to me, and is the standard I hold myself to in my professional and personal life.

I will miss him greatly.