Thursday, March 30, 2023

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Column | A life filled with helping others

By Tommy Arviso Jr.

Editor’s note: Tommy Arviso Jr. is the former CEO/publisher of the Navajo Times Publishing Co. Inc. Mr. Arviso retired in mid-May 2022.

Old sports writers never die, they just move on to the next ballgame, the next high school track meet, or a dusty weekend rodeo, and of course, another story deadline.

If you look hard and long enough, you can still see the weathered sportswriter sitting court side at the press table, or walking along the field sidelines, or standing in the rodeo announcer’s box. You can’t help but notice the familiar press ID hanging from his neck and the infamous notepad and pen in his hands.

For myself, if I stop and carefully listen, I can also still hear that unique, high-pitched giggle and laugh of Oree Foster, the legendary local Navajo sportswriter. If you knew Oree, then you know exactly what I am talking about.

On Tuesday morning, I attended a funeral service for Eugene Oree Foster at the Potter House Church in Fort Defiance, Arizona. Oree had just turned 69 years Feb. 4, his birthday. He died on March 1, 2023.

The funeral service was simple, sad, and funny. About 60 family and friends gathered in the small, comfortable church to pay tribute and respect to Oree and his life. The pastor of the service, Martin Haven of Fort Defiance, spoke of a Bible verse that he believed exemplified Oree’s time on Mother Earth.

Navajo Times file
Oree Foster

He said, and I paraphrase, that a long happy fulfilled life is a life that was fulfilled helping others. I agreed with Pastor Haven and so did the crowd of family and friends. Through his professional journalism career, his role as a family man, and his spiritual knowledge, Oree was able to help many people to better their lives through education and sports, and through song and prayer.

The funeral service started with a welcome by Oree’s older brother Larry. He introduced his family that included the oldest brother, Lenny Foster, followed by Larry, and then Dr. Chuck Foster. Oree’s son Patrick and his grandchildren were acknowledged as were other relatives and close friends.

Most of the audience consisted of older athletes and cowboys who knew Oree as their baseball and basketball teammate or as the sportswriter who recorded their athletic achievements.

I sat next to the Tsingine brothers – Ray, Willard and Glen. Nearby sat Wayne Claw, Chuck Henderson, Jason Yazzie, Gilbert Clauschee, Tony Davis and Victor and Nona Etsitty. There were members of the Fort Defiance Indians men’s baseball team and family members of the Navajo Code Talkers sitting in the church.

Oree’s father, the late Harold Foster, served his country as a Navajo Code Talker in World War II and I know that Oree and his brothers were quite proud of their father and all the Navajo Code Talkers. When Oree wasn’t writing sports, he spent a lot of time working to promote and preserve the legacy of the Navajo Code Talkers. He did this alongside of friends like Zonnie Gorman, daughter of the late Carl Gorman. Zonnie was at the service with her husband, Ellis Tanner.

Dr. Chuck Foster offered the opening prayer to the service. Chuck still has that warm, friendly smile and he looked in great shape, like he could run another record-breaking cross-country race. When Chuck was a senior at Window Rock High, Oree was a sophomore. I know that Oree was proud that he was able to run cross-country and play basketball for the Fighting Scouts along with his big brother.

Chuck’s prayer was followed by the eulogy presented by Larry Foster. Larry spoke about his young brother’s life and his many accomplishments as a student-athlete as a youth, at Window Rock High, at Central Arizona College and then at Arizona State University where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s in journalism. Larry then talked about Oree’s professional career as a sportswriter and photographer, and the many outlets that he worked for, including the Navajo Times.

Oree also produced articles and photos for the Gallup Independent, the Arizona Republic, the Phoenix Suns, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Arizona Interscholastic Association. In fact, Oree was most recently writing articles for AIA’s website, AIA365.

Larry delivered the eulogy going back and forth between Navajo and English. As he spoke, I had numerous memories racing back into my mind of the time we spent together producing a first-class sports section for the Navajo Times and the Navajo Times TODAY.

In fact, since December 1982, I worked with Oree on-and-off through the last four decades on many, many articles, photos, interviews, awards ceremonies, speeches, and presentations, all predominately based on the local sports scene and athletes. We were good at what we did at the Navajo Times, and I don’t mind boasting that during our careers, we produced some excellent, award-winning sports journalism.

We didn’t do it alone though as we had some amazing co-workers at the Navajo Times like photographer Paul Natonabah, editor Duane Beyal, and press guys Leonard Sylvan and Willie Holtsoi, and many others through the years. Together we were a great team and I believe that we helped the Navajo Times to become the No. 1 newspaper throughout Indian Country. We had the best sports section in the Four Corners area.

I credit Oree with helping me in my journalism career by opening the doors to the Navajo Times. I was attending ASU in the fall semester of 1982 and one day I saw Oree and Len Foster strolling through the Tempe campus. I tracked them down and I asked Oree if he could help me find work at the Navajo Times during the upcoming holiday break, possibly writing sports. He agreed to try and make that happen.

In December 1982, I started work as a college intern, writing sports for the Navajo Times. We worked in an old building in downtown Window Rock that was in the area that is now the Window Rock flea market. That is where I met Paul, Duane, Leonard, and Willie. The rest is history you could say.

After ASU, I came home to Window Rock and was hired in the spring of 1984 at the Navajo Times. In March, the Navajo Times TODAY began publishing as a five-day-a-week publication, Monday through Friday. That was the beginning of a fun and busy time in our young sports writing lives.

Along with Oree, Paul and photographer Kenji Kawano, we produced a sports section each day that focused on local sports and activities along with national sports articles from United Press International.

Oree was the sports editor and together we covered so many high school and college sporting events and games throughout the Navajo Nation and border towns. There was also a lot of independent local sports tournaments, 10K and 5K races, and of course, rodeo. Lots of rodeos each weekend and the various fairs and finals. It was never ending when it came to the local sports scene.

It was during these early years that we started the Navajo Times All-Area All-Star Teams. I recall that our first All-Star basketball teams had only the top five boys and girls players in the area, followed by a second and third team. We simply had what we thought was the best of the best. Today, the Navajo Times has hundreds of student-athletes on the All-Star teams for each sport. Needless to say, it has grown tremendously not only in number, but also in prestige.

I remember that Oree and I would start with a long list of names, and we would meticulously narrow it down to the top student-athletes and coaches. We wanted our All-Star teams to showcase the local area’s top talent that would rival anything produced by the Albuquerque Journal, Arizona Republic and the state’s athletic associations that often ignored and left out our talented student-athletes.

I believe we accomplished that.

This was also the time that we began hosting our All-Star awards banquets and awards ceremonies. We would host the events at the Red Rock State Park in Church Rock, New Mexico, at the Quality Inn Restaurant in Window Rock, and in Shiprock at the Performing Arts Center. Thousands of parents, families and fans attended these awards ceremonies, and it was always a special event for everyone who participated, especially the student-athletes. It was their moment to shine in front of the hometown supporters and in the pages of the Navajo Times.

We highlighted these awards ceremonies with noted guest speakers like the late Navajo Tribal Chairman and Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah. Also, we had speakers like pro golfer Notah Begay III, Phoenix Suns center Mark West, and Arizona Cardinals linebacker Michael Bankston.

We also had coaches like the late Angelo DiPaolo of Gallup and Window Rock High, the late Emil Nasser of Winslow, the late Errol Valteau of Window Rock, and the late Jerry Richardson of Shiprock. They all shared their special wit and humor with everyone in attendance.

In my experience, the best speaker we ever had was Kayenta Monument Valley head football coach and athletic director, Ed Tano. Coach Tano praised the honorees and their families for their accomplishments. He then turned serious, and he spoke sincerely to the student-athletes about domestic violence and with tears streaming down his face, he told the young men in the audience to never make a fist and abuse women and children. That was a classic, moving moment for all of us there that night.

Coach Tano was a close friend to Oree, and a big supporter of our efforts to promote our local youth. I consider Ed Tano to also be my true friend. Tano also got a big kick out of Oree’s laugh. He said that you knew Oree was near when you heard his laugh.

I will never forget those awards ceremonies and all the people involved and the emotions shared. At the end of the night, Oree, Paul and I would shake hands and smile, then head home. We had done good.

And then, there were the All-Star high school senior basketball and football games with Arizona-Utah versus New Mexico-Colorado. These games were Oree’s ideas, and I assisted him the best way I could. The one fact that most people don’t know is that these events were huge financial undertakings and while there were a few sponsors involved, most of the costs were paid by Oree himself. He spent his own money to make these All-Star games happen and if he could possibly break even with the gate receipts, that was good enough for him.

I also have a lot of good, fun memories from these All-Star games. One in particular moment with the football All-Star game involves Shawn Martinez who now works in the marketing-public relations department for the Phoenix Suns. The Arizona-Utah team needed some quick receivers. Shawn said he was available and so we had him join the team at their final day’s practices. At the actual game played at WRHS Judd Avey field, Shawn caught the game-winning pass and was voted the Offensive MVP of the game. I remember Shawn being carried by his teammates on their shoulders. What a momentous game that was, played before hundreds of fans on a cool Saturday afternoon in Fort Defiance.

The basketball All-Star games were also huge events with thousands of fans coming out to cheer on their favorite boys and girls players with coaches from the local area. Until the pandemic hit the Navajo Nation, those basketball All-Star games continued to be major favorites with the fans and the players, too. Oree did his best to present these games to the public in timely fashion each year and he did so with pride and enthusiasm.

The biggest accomplishments and results from all of these All-Star awards ceremonies and all-star games is the publicity and exposure that was given to the student-athletes in our Four Corners area. Throughout the years, numerous coaches and scouts from colleges, universities, junior and community colleges, and other higher learning institutions attended these All-Star games and watched the student-athletes in action.

As a result of their showing at these All-Star games plus their high school accolades, hundreds of student-athletes were offered scholarships to attend college, to further their education, and to play sports, run cross-country and compete in track and field.

This is one of Oree’s greatest gifts and accomplishments. Through his vision, hard work and belief in himself, many young adults were able to attend college and get their degrees. Some of these noted student-athletes have come home and are now coaching and teaching at our local schools. That is an amazing and valuable accomplishment.

I could go on and write about our experiences with rodeo and all the many cowboys and cowgirls that Oree assisted through his sports writing, but I better start ending my column. I do know that as a direct result of the many articles and photographs that Oree, Paul and I presented to our readers throughout the years, the local rodeo scene grew to huge proportions and the rodeo stars earned their much-deserved spots and accolades in the world of professional and amateur rodeo. This includes the young cowboys and cowgirls in the IJRA and WJRA.

Today, the world of rodeo is much different and involves a lot more financial commitment and investment. It’s become more of a business undertaking. However, rodeo is still enjoyed tremendously by thousands of rodeo fans and supporters, and it always will be.

I would need at least three full pages to share all the experiences that Oree and I shared throughout the many years that we worked together. One thing that amazed me was that when Oree typed his stories on the computer, he used only the forefingers on each hand. He didn’t take any typing classes when he was in school and so he just used his two forefingers to bang out thousands of articles throughout his career. He was good at it though and he always made deadline.

One aspect of Oree’s life that was heralded at the funeral service, was his spirituality and his belief in God. All the speakers noted that Oree was a sincere believer in the ways of the church and in his traditional beliefs and customs. He was spiritual in his own way, and he helped others through his prayers, songs, and beliefs. Oree was active in the sweat lodge, and he ran sweat lodge ceremonies in the local area often.

Oree got peace of mind through praying and helping others and I respected him for that. He was strong in that way.

“My brother was a great journalist and a talented photojournalist and a good man,” said Oree’s oldest brother, Len Foster. “But what I am most proud of is that Oree learned the prayers and songs of the sweat lodge. He conducted the sweat lodge ceremony, and he helped a lot of people. He helped me in that way.”

After the funeral ceremony, Oree was laid to rest at the Fort Defiance Cemetery. His father is buried nearby at the special section reserved for military veterans.

As I close this column, I go back to what Pastor Haven said earlier about the Bible passage and Oree’s life. He said that a long happy fulfilled life is a life that was fulfilled with helping others.

In many ways, helping others is what Oree did with his God-given talent to tell stories. Through his journalism and his prayers and songs, Oree gave opportunities to others to make a good life for themselves. He helped me to start my career in journalism at the Navajo Times and for that I will be forever grateful.

“Oree was my brother and I love him. We all love him,” Len Foster said. “I will miss him. We will all miss him.”

Yes, you will be missed, Oree, but we won’t forget you. Rest in peace my brother.


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