Diaries through the Decades: John Foster, an ordinary man with a hero's heart

Sometimes, the big moments in life are about being in the right place at the right time. At other times, that's not enough.

John Foster is 86 years old. He doesn't speak like a hero; he could be your grandfather. But when he was 16, Foster saved a boy's life and seven years later, saved his mother's heart.

Foster grew up in Rochester, N.Y., yards away from the Genesee River. One day, he heard screams and ran to the bank. Twin boys had wandered past a steep underwater ledge and, overwhelmed by the depth and current, began to drown. Foster immediately jumped in and pulled one of the boys to safety as the other sank into the murky water. Foster dove back in and found him, but despite performing artificial respiration, could not save the boy. For his courage, Foster was awarded by the Rochester City Council.

Like so many extraordinary moments, this one faded into the background of Foster's life. Foster's father died when he was 14. He began working in a boiler room at Kodak to help support his mother and siblings. When the United States became involved in World War II, Foster volunteered for the Coast Guard and arranged for a portion of every military check to be sent to his mother.

After his discharge, Foster moved to Santa Monica, Ca. He worked at an appliance store in the seaside town when he received word that his younger sister, who was living at home with his mother, was getting married and beginning a life of her own. Foster also had two older brothers and an older sister. One of the brothers had been traveling footloose around the country for years, and the other two siblings were both married.

Foster moved back home to care for his mother, which prevented her from being shuffled around like unwanted clutter. Just like on the bank of the river seven years earlier, "somebody had to step in," Foster said. He was 23.

While taking care of his mother, Foster took a job at Gleason Works on University Avenue in Rochester, making gear-cutting machinery. He worked there for 32 years. Today, Foster is the only living member of his family. He keeps a room in Morgan Estates Assisted Living Facility in Geneseo and is a skilled birdwatcher.

"I often wonder what would've happened," he said, referring to his former life in California. Despite his curiosity, Foster does not appear to have any regrets. "I knew I had to [go home] because it was my responsibility."

If you talk to Foster, he will tell you about the pileated woodpeckers in the county. He may mention he lived near the sea once, but moved to Rochester for his mother. He will not tell you he is a hero, though he is. He is extraordinary, and yet, all we see is another face among us.