Obituary: Debora S. Foster / Served Heinz with 'great class and dignity'

Aug. 29, 1952 - March 11, 2013

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Debbie Foster had one of those great stories, the kind where a small-town girl starts as a temp for a big company and works her way up the ladder to vice president of corporate communications, piling up adventures along the way.

The H.J. Heinz Co. in Pittsburgh employed Ms. Foster's marketing and media skills for 32 years. She handled projects that ranged from shepherding the creation of floats for the Tournament of Roses Parade to working with the Duchess of York on a Weight Watchers promotion, to responding to comments about Teresa Heinz Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh.

"She was just a very calm person, not easily rattled at all," said her husband, William Foster, who recalls the middle-of-the-night calls from Heinz staff in Australia that he had to answer because the phone was by his side of the bed.

Ms. Foster retired from Heinz in 2006, not long after surviving a bout with cancer and deciding it was time to step back from the 24-hours-a-day demands of her job. Even then she didn't really retire, launching a media training firm with former TV news anchor Sheila Hyland and serving on the board of Westminster College, where she helped choose the current president.

But about three years ago, the Upper St. Clair resident was diagnosed with a different form of cancer that set off several rounds of treatment, her husband said. On Monday, Ms. Foster, 60, died of breast cancer at St. Clair Hospital.

The New Florence native seemed to be good at making connections throughout her life. While she was a junior at Westminster College, where she majored in English, she met her future husband when they both served on a mutual friend's student government slate.

At another friend's wedding reception, she happened to sit next to a Heinz executive who was impressed enough to tell her to call when she started job hunting, according to her husband. When she did in 1974, the executive found a temporary slot for her at the Heinz U.S.A. operation on the North Side that evolved into a permanent job within a few months.

In 1987, she moved to Heinz World Headquarters as manager of corporate public relations and eventually rose to the vice president role in October 2003. Her duties included coordinating the company's global communications team, which meant working with employees at Heinz divisions around the world. She also served on the issues and crisis management team and the scientific advisory board.

For her family, her career offered up some nice experiences along with the phone calls at all hours, her husband said. For example, he and the couple's son, Jared, would tag along to the Rose Parade festivities, having fun while she was off working.

In an interview in 2006, Ms. Foster related tales of some interesting crises that popped up over the years, like the time the president of Ghana's plane was having mechanical problems and he had to be somewhere, so she used her company-issued credit card to charter a small private plane to New York. Then she helped his entourage stow their weapons on the disabled plane so they could get on a commercial flight.

"Deb was a wonderful communicator, mentor and friend," said Michael Mullen, senior vice president of corporate and government affairs for Heinz. He said Ms. Foster represented the company with "great class and dignity."

Her calm presence was also helpful to Richard H. Dorman, who became president of Westminster College in 2008 just as the nation's financial markets were starting to melt down. In her role as board chairman, Ms. Foster had called Mr. Dorman with the job offer. And, he said, she was the one who nurtured him through that challenging first year.

"Smart, engaging, insightful, enormously grounded and a pure joy to be with, it is easy to see how she became the first female chair of the board of trustees in Westminster's history," he said. "The college was her second family, and she was enormously dedicated to its mission."

Ms. Foster was also a director of the Pittsburgh Opera and the Fisa Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on women, girls and people with disabilities. She was also a trustee of the Eden Hall Foundation.

In addition to her husband and son, Ms. Foster is survived by her parents, Gerald W. Swatsworth and Helen L. Swatsworth of Johnstown, Cambria County; and her sister, Sandra Rhodes of Charlotte, N.C.

Visitation will be at John F. Slater Funeral Home, Brownsville Road, Brentwood, today from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Services will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at Baldwin Community United Methodist Church in Whitehall.


Teresa F. Lindeman: or at 412-263-2018.


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