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 centennial Herald Masthead 
  home > news > centennial front > Monday, October 20, 2003 


PEOPLE
Bonnie Foster rolls through life with a smile
Bonnie Bierling Foster was just a teen-ager when she bought a Cushman scooter in the mid '40s. She worked at the Horseshoe Café at the time, working the graveyard shift because she was too young to serve alcohol earlier in the evening. COURTESY BONNIE FOSTER


Nowadays, Foster can be seen about town behind the wheel of her red Mustang with her personalized license plate. HERALD PHOTO

Bonnie Jean Foster may be the youngest 70-something in Whatcom County.

She can become as nostalgic as anyone for the cozier Bellingham of the 1940s and '50s, but isn't one to complain much about the growth and change since.

She's too busy tooling around in her sporty red Mustang. She's the grinning 74-years-young woman with the personalized license plate "BONNIEF."

That, of course, won't surprise people who remember her as a go-kart racer and a much-honored bowler.

"I still think Bellingham is the best spot on Earth to live. I won't leave until I'm carried out of my house, feet first!" she said. "The town is growing, but you just have to grow with it.

"I'm so glad my mother brought me here 58 years ago."

Foster arrived in Bellingham from Wisconsin on her 16th birthday - April 8, 1945.

She was already a working girl and, only four days later landed a job at Newberry's in downtown Bellingham when she heard shocking news. She remembers the buzz downtown when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died, shortly before the end of World War II.

Family split

Her personal battles had just begun, though. Her mother died less than a year later. Her 10-year-old sister, now Lummi Island resident Myrna Bailey, was adopted by businessman Ted Harmer, but Foster was left to fend for herself.

She lived at the YWCA and worked as a cashier and waitress, and later worked at the Georgia-Pacific tissue and pulp mill.

Foster vividly recalls working at the Horseshoe Cafe, serving the prostitutes who attracted men to the second-story rooms above the downtown cafe. Not one to judge people even as a teen, she curiously approached them as human beings rather than pariahs.

Foster was too young to serve alcohol, so she worked the graveyard shift because they stopped selling beer at midnight. She recalls using part of her salary to buy a $212 Cushman motor scooter - $5 down and $5 a month.

Foster enjoyed Hannegan Speedway - she helped pick rocks out of the track to prepare it for racing - but there was a dark side, too. A few years ago, she told Women's World magazine a compelling story of how she was date-raped by a man she met at the speedway in 1948 and became pregnant.

She gave her baby girl up for adoption. More than 40 years later her daughter, Kathleen, found Foster after a search. The two have since enjoyed a rewarding relationship, with Foster especially appreciative of her daughter's artistic skills.

Foster returned to Bellingham and to work in 1949, a bit more wary of the world but not bitter. She was working as a waitress at the Royal Cafe when her sunny smile and pleasant disposition attracted the attention of auto racing enthusiast Ernie Foster.

"You talk about love at first sight!" she said.

They married in 1952, when Foster was 23, and reared three children - daughter Sherry and sons Kerry and Terry. They had 43 years together until Ernie died eight years ago at age 71.

Bonnie Foster worked 22 years in payroll services at Western Washington University; he worked 33 years at Ershig's sheet metal, where he was a foreman.

Bonnie's pride is evident when she talks about him: "Ernie built the first go-kart in Bellingham and created the first 'wing' on a racecar at Skagit Speedway."

She earned dozens of bowling patches, including awards for her membership in the elite 600 club - for people who have rolled three consecutive 200 games in sanctioned league play.

One of Foster's favorite memories is seeing the world's largest Christmas tree -153 feet tall - paraded through downtown Bellingham in 1949 and erected on Railroad Avenue.

Foster laughs about the innocence of the times. She recalls when she saw the risqué Western film, "The Outlaw," starring buxom young Jane Russell, of whom critics of her acting said "she still has two very big reasons to watch her." She recalled that the film, produced by Howard Hughes in 1943 but not generally released until 1950, was shown in an outlying county theater because it was considered too bold for Bellingham.

In 1997, for Robert Fulghum's book of romantic anecdotes, "True Love," Foster contributed the tale of her first date with Ernie, on July 4, 1950. She was knocked out by a huge clod of dirt thrown by a speeding auto at Skagit Speedway.

"For once, I was embarrassed to be the center of attention," she wrote. "People slowly started drifting away when they saw I wasn't badly hurt. My mouth must have been open when I got hit, because I kept spitting dirt, a very unromantic thing to do when you're out on a first date with someone you want to impress.

"There was dirt in my mouth, dirt up my nose, in my eyes, and in my ear. I was a bleary-eyed, runny-nosed, dirt-drooling young woman who wished she could crawl under the nearest bush and hide."

Foster, though, isn't one to hide. Just look for the smiling 74-year-old in the spiffy red Mustang.

- Michelle Nolan

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