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World War II veteran effective, well-liked grade school tutor

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Thomas Foster, 89, has tutored children at Westwood Elementary school in Greenwood for 10 years. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal
Thomas Foster, 89, has tutored children at Westwood Elementary school in Greenwood for 10 years. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal

After 10 years of working with children who need a little help with reading, math or the dreaded listening skills, a Greenwood man has earned an informal title: most effective, most liked tutor-mentor.

Tom Foster has been working with students at Westwood Elementary School, one at a time, week by week. The World War II veteran is noted for his ability to connect with the much-younger students he tutors, building a relationship with them that enables him to pass on life lessons to the students as well as help with academics.

Example: Landon Smith, now a third-grader at Westwood, met with Foster when he was in the first grade.

“He was my buddy for the first grade. He’s just really nice.

I always go up and say ‘Hi’ to him when I see him here (at the school),” Landon said. “He helped me with reading and math. He taught me a lot about being nice and about being respectful.”

The program that brings Foster and students together is run by OASIS, a national organization whose local chapter provides tutors for Greenwood elementary schools.

The Intergenerational Tutoring Program is part of the national OASIS organization’s efforts to provide activities, education and opportunities for retired people, said Janie Adcock, coordinator of the program in Greenwood.

This school year will be the 21st that Oasis has worked with Greenwood Community Schools, the only district in Johnson County that participates with the organization. OASIS provided 35 tutors in 2012-13 for 43 students.

Foster, who turns 90 on Aug. 22, is the local program’s oldest tutor but also one of its best-liked, Adcock said.

“He has a dry sense of humor and is very straightforward,” she said. “We’ve always heard that he asks them to be polite and pay attention. I know a couple of his students have kept in touch with him even after they’ve gone all the way to high school.”

Foster said one such student used to visit him at home.

“We stayed in touch until recently,” Foster said. “We had a lot of fun tutoring and got to be pretty friendly. I never knew when this kid would appear at my door. He would sit down and talk forever. Later on, one day, he drove by in a car. It’s kind of gratifying when young kids like that remember you. I’ll also have kids I had a year or two before come up and give me a hug. It’s kind of neat.”

The needs of the children is another driving motivator for him, Foster said.

“Some of these kids come from families that are very interested and work with them, but a good many are just the opposite and provide no help at home. Some of these are just glad to have somebody give them a little time. They just need someone to talk with them. It’s a great opportunity for a retired person to help. We need more tutors.”

The program works with students in kindergarten through third grade, with students selected by teachers based on academic, social and emotional needs, Westwood Elementary School Principal Lisa Harkness said.

“It’s usually a kid who can use a little bit of assistance from a positive influence,” Harkness said. “We love all of our OASIS tutors and keep them busy.”

Harkness said Foster seems to have a special talent for mentoring.

“It’s almost like magic. There’s something about him that even a child who might be a little more active, he speaks to them in his soft voice and is able to really embrace them,” she said. “He has that knack for getting kids to listen to him, to work with him and enjoy every moment of it.”

Foster said what prompted his initial interest in the program and tutoring was fairly simple.

“I think I needed something to do,” he said.

Having retired from Mayflower Transit in 1986, Foster had volunteered with the Johnson County Library’s English-as-a-second-language program, but when there was a lag in people asking for help, he switched to the OASIS program. He already was involved with the organization in activities such as yoga.

Even after going through the training program, Foster said, he was nervous on his first day walking into Westwood to work with a student, especially given the age difference he would be dealing with as a then 80-year-old.

“I was slightly apprehensive I guess,” he said. “I had a Hispanic young man, and he was like a bulldog with a bone. Anything I gave him to do, he would work at it until he got it done. He was very conscientious. During recess he would even come in the ESL room and work with the teacher to improve his English.”

Adcock praised Foster for staying with the program even after a bout with cancer and, again, after the death of his wife of 60 years, Iva.

As to his motivation for continuing to work with children, the soft-spoken but articulate Foster said it is the kids themselves.

“Kids are kind of neat creatures,” he said. “It’s called tutoring, but it’s really a tutoring-mentoring combination.”

The program schedules Foster to meet with his student once a week, beginning in October of each school year. Flexibility is a key for getting through to students on an ongoing basis, he said.

“I might have goals for a certain day, but I often find I end up working on something else,” he said. “If a kid is not interested, we go to plan B, which is unformulated at the moment. Whatever works. Of course if a teacher wants to work on something specific like reading, that’s what we try to do.”

Adcock said Foster’s reputation is for being strict, but he disputed that to some degree.

“I will touch upon behavior somewhat. If a kid is acting in a poor way, I might try to gently turn him away from that,” he said. “Some kids just don’t want to try. I don’t feel it’s my job to try and correct that. That’s a problem for the people at home.

“But sometimes I do have to correct kids, and I try to do that gently and in a friendly way. I’m only with them for a short time, so I don’t want them to hate me.

“I think I get more out of it than the kids do.”

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