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Ralph Foster


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STONE MOUNTAIN: Ralph Foster, Atlanta tennis chief, raconteur


Ralph M. Foster couldn't have been better suited to his job, a cozy little love match that kept him ensconced at the Bitsy Grant Tennis Center for more than 30 years.

There was just one hang-up: He didn't play tennis.

"He never played a day in his life," said his daughter Kathy Andrews of Dacula. "He knew everything about the game and could tell you all the tactics and what you were doing wrong, but he never picked up a racket."

What he did do was turn the tennis center into his own personal welcome center and a staging ground for his elaborate practical jokes. In between stringing rackets, playing Ping-Pong, keeping tabs on the courts and running the pro shop, he'd hang out with such well-known pals as Bitsy Grant, Bobby Dodd and Larry Shippey and shoot the breeze for hours.

"It was the perfect job for my father to have," his daughter said. "He assigned tennis courts and played checkers and lied all day. Between games, those guys would sit around with my father and he'd tell these amazing tall tales. He was the king of fish stories."

Mr. Foster, 75, of Stone Mountain died of complications from cancer Jan. 26 at Gwinnett Medical Center. The body was cremated. The memorial service is 4 p.m. today at Lucerne Baptist Church. Horis A. Ward, Stone Mountain Chapel, is in charge of arrangements.

He got his job as the city of Atlanta's tennis director by default. After serving in the Korean War, the Atlanta native applied for a firefighter's job and discovered he was afraid of heights.

Instead, he aced the tennis center job in the early 1950s and stayed until he retired in the mid-1980s. From his Bitsy Grant office, he oversaw the park department's other tennis facilities, including courts at Chastain Park and Piedmont Park.

"You wouldn't find anyone smarter in the game," his daughter said. "He could take a tennis racket and bing it against his hand and tell you the tension, like, 'Oh, that's 30 pounds.' He just knew it all."

Despite his laid-back persona, his daughter said, he worked so much that he retired with years of leftover compensatory time. "He never took time off," she said. "He just thought the place couldn't do without him."

His friend Joe Becknell of Marietta was a victim of one of his practical jokes. While Mr. Becknell was playing tennis with a woman he was interested in dating, Mr. Foster interrupted their game to announce over the loudspeaker, "Joe, be sure to pick up the baby food for your wife."

"He was Mr. Tennis Center for so many years," Mr. Becknell said. "He took care of everyone and had an uncanny sense of humor, and if you ever needed anything, you could go to him."

"He was so comfortable with himself and who he was in the world," his daughter said. "If he found something that he had in common with you, before you knew it you were putty in his hands. He just had that talent."

One of his best-known jokes was when he talked Mr. Grant into betting with him when the Kentucky Derby was shown on TV, not letting on that he already knew the winner because they were watching a replay.

"He could lie so well that you never knew if the man was telling the truth," his daughter said.

And, his daughter said, "He was very vain about his thick auburn hair that was always combed perfectly. He'd always say, 'Does my hair look good?' and 'This is the best 75-year-old man you're ever going to meet. Your mom's lucky to have me.' "

Survivors include his wife, Ruth Foster; another daughter, Kay Royds of Lilburn; a son, Ralph Foster Jr. of Stone Mountain; two sisters, Catherine Wells of Nashville and Virginia Long of Stone Mountain; and four grandchildren.

© 2007 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Feb. 3, 2007
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