I blinked and almost three decades passed by.
Today is officially my final workday at the Payson Roundup and it’s almost surreal to realize that my 27-plus year career here has come to an end.
After today’s retirement, I’ll stay on a few hours to help in the transition to the new sports reporter, but I am in effect gone, moved on, departed, absent and vanished.
My sports writing odyssey began in the spring of 1986 when Payson Roundup editor Teresa McQuerrey and General Manager Jack Myers asked me to help out through the summer months.
It seems the paper needed a sports reporter ASAP and the two knew I had some writing experience at the White Mountain Independent in my former home of Show Low.
I agreed to join the newspaper staff, but qualified it by saying my primary career was as a teacher and coach and once football practices and school began in August, I’d return to those duties.
I’m not really clear on what occurred that August, but somehow I agreed to stay on even longer, meaning at the time I had three jobs — teacher, coach and sports reporter.
As time passed, my stay grew to a full year, then five, 10, 20 and on to more than 27.
In retrospect, it’s been a great ride and I’ve had the privilege of working alongside so many great Roundup employees. During those years, I have also made many new and lasting friends.
It’ll be tough leaving those I have grown so fond of working with, but I’m getting to the age, 70, it’s time to spend more time with my wonderful wife, Kay, and our eight grandchildren.
I’m not sure what I’m going to do in the future because, I have no hobbies other than cutting firewood and you can only cut so much before the Forest Service gendarmerie busts you.
Maybe there will be a cruise for Kay and I, or possibly we’ll spend a few winter months on a Mexican beach far away from Pine’s snowy, cold winters.
While teaching and coaching will always be my first love, the newspaper has afforded me adventures I would never have had in the classroom.
Sports has been my primary beat, but over the years I’ve reported on forest fires, trailside shootings, marijuana grows in the national forest, fatal car accidents, the town council, school district and a beat I’ll never forget — the Pine Strawberry Water Improvement District.
Among the most memorable writing assignments was covering the Dude and Horton Creek fires.
In both of those, I was allowed to tag along with fire crews into the jowls of the infernos to give readers a firsthand look at the firefighting efforts and the devastation caused by the blazes.
In the midst of the Horton Creek Fire, I was interviewing a Forest Service “Fire Dog” when out of nowhere lightning struck and killed a New Mexico firefighter working a few hundred yards away.
Witnessing that tragedy helped me better appreciate the dedication of those first responders who protect our homes, forests and lives.
During my time at the Roundup, I also covered a tragic auto accident on the Beeline Highway near the Saguaro Lake exit in which Payson resident David Goddard’s wife and two children were killed by a drunk driver, Rigoberto Arrazola.
As the story and Arrazola’s trial unfolded over three years, I penned more than 20 articles about the catastrophe.
Today, I remember the accident story as the most heartbreaking I have ever written.
Just prior to Arrazola’s sentencing, in a pre-trial hearing in a judge’s office, I found myself sitting only a few inches from the defendant.
It was a very uneasy situation sitting so close to a man who had taken the lives of three precious people and later tried to claim he was not driving the SUV that crashed into Goddard’s car as he was returning to Payson following a shopping trip in the Valley.
Kay, my friend Tim Fruth and I were in the courtroom when Arrazola was convicted and sentenced to 10-plus years in prison.
At one time during Arrazola’s original confinement in the Maricopa County Jail, a judge reduced his bond and was about to release him to a halfway house.
Since Arrazola was a Mexican national and in the United States on a work release, our editorial staff’s opinion was that as soon as the defendant was out of jail, he would scamper home to Mexico.
We responded by publishing strong editorials opposing his release and eventually the judge recanted, withdrawing his decision to allow the defendant to be bonded out.
Another tragedy that will remain vivid for years to come is the 2004 shooting death of Payson man Grant Kuenzli on a Coconino National Forest trailhead.
Retired Valley area schoolteacher Harold Fish admitted to the killing, but claimed it was in self-defense.
What resulted was a firestorm of controversy that made headlines around the country.
Fish was eventually convicted by a Flagstaff jury of killing Kuenzli, but after three years in prison, the judge overturned his conviction and set him free.
For some reason, Fish felt comfortable talking with me, most of the time off the record, before he died Sept. 8, 2012 of cancer.
The controversy over Kuenzli’s killing divided Payson, creating a turmoil that turned friends against friends.
The obviously biased and incomplete coverage of the shooting by a rival paper — now out of business — created even more upheaval in our town. Those of us at the Roundup worked hours of overtime to double and triple check every word of every story to ensure we weren’t committing the type of prejudiced and predisposed reporting as the other paper was doing.
Of course some of my favorite memories center on the infamous raids narcotics agents made a few years ago on marijuana gardens in the national forests.
On one particular raid, in the Coconino National Forest above Strawberry, the media was kept a bay and spoon-fed press releases from law enforcement.
A law enforcement friend of mine, however, granted me access to where the marijuana was being lifted out of the canyon by helicopter and burned.
An agent on an ATV motored out to the sight to where the media was being kept to escort me into the burn area.
As I passed by the big city media, including television stations, clamoring to get to the site, a newsman yelled, “Hey, who are you with that allows you to get in there?”
I suppose he thought I must have been with the New York Times, CNN or NBC, but I answered by hollering back, “the Payson Roundup.”
He only stared back.
Once inside the confines of the burn area, I breathed a good deal of the smoke being emitted from the marijuana burn.
A Forest Service employee, who was a former student, warned that the smoke might soon affect me, cautioning, “Hey Mr. Foster, when you’re going home you’ll probably only get to Strawberry before you’ll get the munchies.”
Needless to say, when I finally arrived home I had a lot of explaining to do to my wife.
She said I sounded like Cheech and Chong.
Most certainly, working here has been a great ride and I’m fortunate that former editors, publishers and owners have allowed me to author stories knowing I had absolutely no journalism training and during my college years had to take freshman English twice before I passed.
In leaving, only those who have been in my classroom or who I have coached, will understand this farewell. But since there are a considerable number of you, I will end by asking you to, “Hold the rope.”