Renaissance Man

Craig Armstrong
Mike Foster, seated, Rick Becker, left, and Brooks McDaniel perform at ICC North in Peoria in 2009.

Professor Mike Foster is a retired literature teacher, journalism professor, a writer, a student of Tolkien, a musician, a poet and a man who knows the true power of the written word. Some would say Foster’s experience and knowledge in all of these areas make him a Renaissance Man … they would be correct.

While Foster possesses knowledge and proficiency in more than one field, (which is what makes him a modern day Renaissance Man) it  is clear his first love is literature.

Foster’s love affair with literature began at an early age. As a boy he was given an allotment of 10 books per week from his local library.

Either reading them himself or having them read to him, Foster devoured the subject matter.

As he grew so did his thirst for knowledge. After attending Spalding High School, Foster pursued a bachelor’s degree at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

He returned to Spalding in 1968 to teach and was quickly paid back for the years of “smart aleckery” that he practiced as a student.

Thirsting for more knowledge and education, Foster returned to Marquette and completed his master’s degree.

In 1971 he became a member of the English faculty at Illinois Central College. He began teaching Tolkien in his fantasy literature class in 1974, and in 1978, Tolkien literature became a regular class at the college.

To say Professor Foster’s knowledge of history making literature is vast is an understatement. He has studied Tolkien manuscripts, as well as papers on Joyce Kilmer and the Jesuit missionaries. He has studied at the Marion Wade Center, Wheaton College and at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Foster’s love for the latter is clear with his statement, “If heaven is college, libraries and good food, it will be Oxford.”

His list of accomplishments is extensive.

He is an expert on Tolkien and has presented published papers on the writer in both the United States and around the world.

He has been called upon by national television for his expertise in the Tolkien manuscripts and is completing an interview with Tolkien’s grandson Simon, which will soon be published.

He is even completing his first collection of poetry, Schoolboy Loves His Pie: Poems 1964-2010.

With a pedigree like this, you would think that Foster could be a stuffy intellectual with no time for anything but his studies … you would be incorrect.

As a modern day Renaissance Man, Foster is also an accomplished musician who has been playing with the “eclectic cover band” known as A Fine Kettle of Fish for 34 years.

Another thing about Foster that takes him out of the all scholar no substance category is his appreciation for literature, in an everyman sense.

He looks at books like old friends, re-reading a book from childhood takes him back in time.

Foster recounts the “first grown up book” he ever read was Peter Pan. He qualifies it as an adult book because it has “more words than pictures.”

He enjoys not only reading books, but also discussing them over pizza and beer. He wants to know the “inner landscape” of the characters he is reading about and he wants to know what other people think.

Foster describes himself as a “middle distance writer.”

When asked if you can teach someone to write he said, “You can teach someone to write better,” but there is “an element of talent and element of soul.”

As a former writer for the Peoria Journal Star, Foster gives some advice about how to find a stories’ lede.

“Start writing in the middle and the lede will hit you like a circus clown with a pie.”

Foster has accomplished much in his 63 years. He has interviewed countless celebrities and has risen to celebrity himself.

He has rocked the stage with his music and brought Tolkien literature alive to thousands.

But at his core is a lover of the written word and a man who understands the true meaning of literature.