After 50 years, Foster puts down ‘poison pen’
BY TOM FONTANA
[Disclaimer: Writers of newspaper articles should be strictly unbiased, but that was difficult with this story, after having deeply loved the subject for the past 25 years.]
Helen B. Foster’s upcoming retirement is a lot like the weather: everybody will talk about it, but there’s nothing anybody can do about it.
In recent years, the long-time Susquehanna County journalist has repeatedly threatened to hang up her ‘poison pen’ after more than five decades of reporting on everything from local government to cute baby contests.
But Helen has been known to change her mind faster than the weather changes.
Actually, Helen is much like the weather. She can be sunny and warm, cold and icy, breezy and mild, thunderous and flashy. Like the seasons, she easily shifts from colorful to frosty, or from blooming to scorching. Even though she’s in the autumn of her years, meet her on any day and one might get the impression that she’s just getting started. But don’t get her humidity up; she can be full of hail.
“Helen B. Foster” is her byline, but she is more affectionately known as ‘Mother Helen,’ ‘Aunt Helen,’ and ‘Mom-Mom.’
She has also been referred to by some as ‘opinionated’ (her self-proclaimed email moniker is ‘poisonpen’), but she’s not really that complicated. Mother Helen tells it like it is.
“I just get the who, what, when and where,” she explains, “then throw in a couple of quotes with a few photos. That’s all. It’s pretty simple.”
After 50 years as a reporter and photographer, she recently announced that she soon plans to officially retire from writing for the Susquehanna County Independent.
Her career started with the Susquehanna County Press in 1964, not as a writer, but by helping a friend conduct a subscription campaign to boost sales. In the process, some newsprint ink must have seeped into her veins, contaminating her blood stream with the need to document the day-to-day goings on in her county, especially the eastern part where the Maryland native raised a family with her husband, the late C. Garfield Foster.
“I grew up with one foot in Elkton, Maryland,” she explains, “and the other in Harford, Susquehanna County.”
Helen Booth met Gar Foster when the Booth family moved to Harford after Helen graduated from Elkton High School. The couple married and moved to Oakland Twp., and their children – Tom, Garlyn and Janet – are graduates of Susquehanna High School.
By 1974, Helen became the editor of the Press, which later merged with the Montrose Independent, becoming the Susquehanna County Independent. She served as bureau chief in the Susquehanna borough office for many years, and eventually became a freelance writer for the paper.
Over those years, she seldom hesitated to run the show and call the shots, keeping a precise record of a variety of county doings, from parades and picnics to meetings and matrimonies, felonies and funerals to elections and ejections. She admits that she often “made my own rules.”
Aunt Helen has doted over many organizations as a board member for such groups as the Nellie Jane Dewitt Business and Professional Women’s Club, Republican Women, Children & Youth, Literacy, Barnes-Kasson Hospital, Peoples National Bank, and the PTA.
Mom-Mom has been repeatedly honored for her generous efforts toward the good of the community, being declared Distinguished Citizen of the Year by the Boy Scouts, Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce, and this summer as Grand Marshal of the annual Susquehanna Hometown Festival.
As a reporter, Helen B. Foster’s biggest ‘scoop’ lasted 10 years, concentrating on one local story she personally followed from beginning to end.
“A new bridge over the Susquehanna River linking the town with Oakland was long overdue,” Foster recalls. “Not having that was keeping Susquehanna Borough from developing by being isolated.”
In 1985, plans began to construct that new bridge, which would ultimately link Susquehanna to Interstate 81 (via State Rt. 171), providing large trucks easier access to the borough. An old iron bridge over the river could not handle tractor trailors.
“As a reporter, I went to all the meetings for all the planning stages of the bridge,” Foster says. “I got to meet lots of big shots from all over the state, and wrote everything about the project, from the construction to the naming to the ribbon cutting.”
The Veteran’s Memorial Bridge opened in 1995, and Foster was there to write the story and take the pictures. She almost single-handedly kept the project in the public eye from start to finish on the pages of the newspaper.
“It was an exciting time,” she adds.
In the 1990s, Mother Helen began commiting the third week of every August for daily visits to the Harford Fair. With pad and pen under her arm and camera aimed, her many stories and photos about the best babies, cucumbers, goats and tractors earned her a life-time free pass to the Harford Fair.
“Of all the honors I’ve received,” she states, “my Harford Fair pass is very, very special to me.”
Those who are accustomed to seeing Aunt Helen everywhere will wonder what she will do after she files her final feature.
“I haven’t given it much thought,” she admits. “I’ve always been busy. I never found it difficult to juggle home and work. The best part was being a nobody and getting to meet so many wonderful, important people because of my job. That’s what I’ll miss the most.”
One thing is for sure: no matter what the postscript is to her life as a reporter, she will continue to spread her special brand of sunshine, warmth, love and laughter wherever she goes.