As Chief Dale Foster wrapped up his tenure at the Gilroy Fire Department last week, the memories of the department’s accomplishments were crystal clear – though even more memorable are the many ways the contagious spirit of the Gilroy community has shaped him over the past seven years.
“The people of Gilroy have the most amazing spirit that I loved being a part of,” 63-year-old Foster said, at the firehouse during his last week as chief. “It’s a down-to-earth group of people who work hard and take life as it comes. And people here aren’t pretentious.”
Besides being in a community where he feels at home, Gilroy is the city that made Foster a fire chief, after his 32-year career at the San Jose Fire Department, where he worked his way up to assistant fire chief until his move to Gilroy in 2005.
“My time was done in San Jose, but I wasn’t ready to hang things up. I still had lots of energy and was ready to serve in a new capacity. And I’ve always loved the South County area,” he said.
So Foster, a long-time Morgan Hill resident, came home, in a sense, when he took a job in Gilroy.
In the late 1960s, Foster was studying to be an elementary school teacher at Oregon State University and, like many other broke college students, he was on the prowl for a job. He signed up for a program at a local fire station, where he lived at the fire station rent-free for volunteering part-time.
“I loved the team environment, and the work ethic of the firefighters there. I thought to myself, ‘These guys are the salt of the earth,’” he said.
Thus began Foster’s 40-year career in the fire service.
“More than anything, I was hooked on the feeling of giving back,” he said.
Foster is the first to admit the department faced some rocky years under his leadership, mainly because of budget cuts the entire city faced in the years during the Great Recession beginning in 2008.
“It wasn’t always smiles,” he said.
But Foster said he did the best he could to “do more with less” in the midst of limited resources and staff cutbacks – and believes he is now leaving at a time when the department has come out of the worst of times and is headed in the right direction.
“I was tempted to leave five years ago, when things got rough, and tell everyone, ‘I’m getting the heck out of here,’ but I wanted to stick through, and leave at a time when I felt good about turning things over to someone else,” Foster said.
Foster’s crew described him as a strong leader whose spirit and attitude carried the department through tough times.
Division Chief Colin Martin said that Foster acted as an emollient among a department struggling to adjust to a shrinking budget and a challenging relationship with City Council.
“He came in during difficult times, but one thing about Chief Foster is no matter what issues you had, you could always say your piece and he would listen. He didn’t waver; he would always listen and move on. And I think he was known for that around the department.”
Martin, who has worked with the department for 27 years, said that Foster made a lasting impact.
“He’s got a great spirit about him, and I think that, more than anything else, is what he is going to be remembered for,” he said.
Roger Bloom, the interim chief that the city hired to temporarily replace Foster, said he has “big shoes” to fill in his replacement of Foster.
“I’ll never match his uncanny sense of humor,” Bloom said. “I just hope to keep what he had going.”
Moving forward, with nine quarters of positive sales tax revenue growth behind them, Foster believes the city and the fire department will be OK.
“And not that it will ever be what it once was, or needs to be, but I think the department has a very bright future,” he said.
City Administrator Tom Haglund said that Foster will be remembered as a chief who led the department through a very difficult time, which included “several million dollars” in fire cuts, as well as six fire staff layoffs in January 2009.
“That was a dark hour for the department,” Haglund said. “I think people will look back and see that he was able to address cost cutting in a real way while maintaining service to the community.”
Councilman Perry Woodward said that he’s sad to see Foster go, noting that Foster was more than just a fire chief, but an integral piece of the Gilroy community.
“He’s been really involved with volunteering, and I hope his retirement will give him even more time to do those things,” Woodward said.
And Foster says that’s the plan. Not ready to let go of ties to the Gilroy community, he and his wife Aileen (known to the fire department as “Mrs. Chief”) plan to stay local and focus on volunteering, relaxing with each other, and taking trips to Montana to visit their three young grandchildren.