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Giving is family tradition, Gallo benefactor says

Sue Foster is in charge of her family's charitable giving, but she insists the benevolence doesn't begin or end with her.

"This isn't about me," she said. "This is about the whole family."

Foster said her late father-in-law, Max Foster, the man who built the Foster Farms food empire, "instilled in his children and all of us that you, 'Just do what you're supposed to do and don't talk about it.' "

Foster said nobody in the family expected or wanted a pat on the back because of their $3 million donation to the Gallo Center for the Arts. The center's smaller, 444-seat theater is named after the family.

"Even if you take our money out and the county and (Gallo center) foundation money out, this community raised a lot of money. Whether it was because the city didn't step up, or whatever, I don't want to assign blame," Foster said. "But the amount raised from the private sector here is truly amazing."

While trying to spread goodwill for the Gallo center project, Foster said she was just following a family tradition.

"Max did so many things for people and he kept them all secret," she said. "After he died, we got a beautiful letter from a family he had taken care of for years after a tragedy. They were so grateful and Max made them promise never to tell anyone."

Foster said her father-in-law would have appreciated the economic promise that is part of the Gallo center. Max Foster's late wife, Verda, "would have loved that there was something so wonderful for people to go to here in Modesto."

Sue Foster said she expects the center "to provide a platform for dreams to come true or fuel to push those dreams along."

She saw some of that joy on children's faces at the hard hat concert for workers who toiled on the project.

"Patty Hill Thomas (county administrator) thanked every one of those workers (by name). It took 45 minutes. But to see the look of pride on children's faces, pride in what their dads had done, that was priceless," she said.

She said the project's impact on the community will go beyond dollars and cents. "When companies recruit top executives, you can't attract the best people to smaller communities unless the area offers a well-rounded spectrum of opportunities and entertainment."

Foster said her love for the arts started as early as elementary school. "I aspired to be a concert pianist, but my nerves prevented it. In my late 30s, I even took classes in music therapy."

There are two private moments Foster looks forward to. "I can't wait to see the look on my grandkids' faces when I take them to this big theater and they see 'Birdhouse Factory.' "

She said her husband, George, is in for a treat, too. "He loves the Blind Boys of Alabama. I'm sure he's happy that the offerings represent such a wide variety. It's not all Beethoven and Bach."

The Foster family also is involved in two major charities that reach beyond the seas.

George and Sue Foster are overseeing the building and development of a dairy and creamery complex in Romania. It will provide vocational training, as well as dairy products, for an orphanage . The orphanage is sponsored by Assist International.

They also are in the last stages of a project in Africa. Acres of Love provides care and hope for abandoned and HIV-positive children in South Africa.

The latter charity completes a generational chain of goodwill.

"My granddaughter Katie told me they took an offering at her school and then they asked if anyone had any ideas where they should give it," Foster said, smiling. "Katie made her presentation to the student council and now they are raising money for Acres of Love."

Bee staff writer Roger W. Hoskins can be reached at rhoskins@modbee.com or 578-2311.

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