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Innovator, scientist and now, politician
Bill Foster's curiosity, ideas generate his multiple careers
By Leslie Hague | Daily Herald Staff

Bill Foster greets supporters earlier this month in Aurora after winning the special election for the 14th District congressional seat.


Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

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Published: 3/22/2008 11:57 PM

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Bill Foster has a history of how he reacts when people tell him he can't do something.

He does it anyway.

In college, a leading expert in theater lighting told Foster and his brother that their plan for a new system was crazy.

They started the company anyway, and made it into a multimillion-dollar business.

At Fermilab, his bosses didn't get behind a new idea several scientists had for a new, more efficient way to study antimatter.

So four scientists, believing that their idea would keep Fermi at the forefront of scientific study, went to Washington, D.C., themselves to lobby Congress for the funding.

"We said, 'We think this is a good thing for the country,' " said Gerry Jackson, one of the scientists who went with Foster.

Despite their bosses finding out about the trip and giving them an earful, the scientists eventually had a successful project that netted them national awards and is still used today.

"If he doesn't think something is going to work, he won't push it," said Jackson, who now owns a business in West Chicago. "But he really thinks about what is the right thing to do."

Foster, 52, has been on a whirlwind tour of Washington and the 14th Congressional District since being elected to a 10-month term in a special election March 8.

Even though he's a political newcomer, he's long had a "recessive gene" and interest in political work, he said.

"I grew up in a house where it was discussed all the time," he said.

Though he grew up in Madison, Wis., his parents met in D.C. while his mother worked for Sen. Paul Douglas of Illinois and his father worked for Sen. Francis J. Myers of Pennsylvania. The family moved to Wisconsin, where Foster's father was a law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked on civil-rights cases.

Foster and his younger brother, Fred, were students at the university when Fred asked Bill to look at a piece of lighting equipment the school had recently bought.

Foster, who had been fiddling with putting together computers on the side, thought using a microprocessor to work the system would dramatically reduce the cost.

The duo began working, getting parts from a tiny start-up firm called Microsoft, to work on the equipment.

"It was a five-person operation," he said of Microsoft. "I have no idea who I was talking to, but it could well have been (Paul) Allen or (Bill) Gates."

The business grew into Electronic Theatre Controls, now the leading company worldwide in theater lighting, and it made the brothers millionaires.

Building the company took so much of Foster's time that his grades suffered and he and his brother stopped competitive sailboat racing on Lake Geneva, a longtime hobby.

"There was a time when I actually considered going out for the Olympic team," Foster said. "Some of the people I used to beat fairly regularly actually made it to the U.S. Olympic team. But that time just got eaten up by the company."

He raced boats ranging from 16 to 28 feet long in different classes. The draw of the pastime was all the different aspects involved in the sport, he said.

"Sailboat racing is this wonderful combination of physical work and intellectual work and then something that's just complete guesswork -- art almost," he said. "You look at the pattern of the water, and something in your brain says here's what it will look like three minutes or 10 minutes from now."

Foster left day-to-day operations of the lighting business to attend Harvard, but stayed on the board of directors. After graduating with a doctorate in physics, he began working at Fermilab in Batavia. He worked there for 13 years before taking a leave of absence to consider a job in national science policy after his children graduated from high school.

"I decided I would like to spend part of my life trying to make things better, instead of just getting unhappy or complaining," he said.

He began looking for a job in science policy in Washington, but after looking around, he decided against it because he didn't feel he could do enough.

"What I found in Congress was that things were just so polarized and partisan that if you were in the minority party, there wasn't a useful role for you in policy making," he said.

He switched his focus to elected office, and volunteered for the congressional campaign of Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania. Murphy, 34, is an Iraq War veteran who co-sponsored the Iraq War De-Escalation Act last year. Besides believing in Murphy personally, Foster wanted to work on that campaign in particular, he said.

"The people running the campaign had a spectacularly good reputation for running good campaigns, and I wanted to learn from the best," he said. "This was a campaign that was going to be an uphill fight, very much like the uphill fight we ended up running in the 14th."

He did multiple jobs for the campaign, including setting up a computer system to organize the campaign's 1,000 Election Day volunteers.

He allows that he was older than most of the volunteers, but enjoyed being taught the ins and outs of campaigning.

"I thought it was one of the greatest experiences of my life," he said.

Buoyed by Murphy's election and work, Foster began talking to local Democratic leaders about making a congressional run. He won a four-way race for the Democratic nomination on Feb. 5, putting millions into his own campaign, and then beat Republican Jim Oberweis in the special election.

The soft-spoken Foster, sworn in just three days after the special election, now has only seven months to learn the ropes in Congress before the general election in November against Oberweis for a full term.

For now, Foster has inherited Dennis Hastert's offices; he knows he'll be moved to less-impressive digs should he win the full term.

Jackson, who worked with Foster at Fermilab, worked on his former colleague's campaign even though he is a Republican. He said despite disagreeing with Foster on issues, he believes in the congressman who was "the ideas guy" in their work.

"You never know what the government is going to be facing, and what you want is a certain philosophy and character," Jackson said. "He's got two important things: intelligence and honesty. Those are rare qualities."

Bill Foster

Age: 52

Residence: Geneva

Family: Divorced; son Billy, 24, and daughter Christine, 20

Education: University of Wisconsin-Madison, bachelor's degree in physics; Harvard University, doctorate degree in physics

Career: Co-founder, Electronic Theatre Controls; scientist at Fermilab

Favorite book: "The Right Stuff" by Tom Wolfe

Favorite TV show: "Boston Legal"