Joyce Foster, 84; neighborhood activist known for optimism

Ms. Foster led co-operative housing projects and helped minorities get an education.
Ms. Foster led co-operative housing projects and helped minorities get an education.

When Northeastern University outbid a Fenway community group and bought the St. Ann University Parish property on St. Stephen Street several years ago, Joyce Foster and other members of the group were disappointed.

“This community needs so much to concentrate on housing, and housing for working people,” Ms. Foster, who was part of a community task force, told the Globe in 2005. “That’s what we’re losing. We’re losing families and working people, so it’s hard.”

But she worked to ensure the sale would have a positive outcome for her Fenway neighborhood by helping persuade the university to use the new space to benefit the community as well as the university. Today, the former church is Northeastern’s Fenway Center, a venue open to all.


Because the history of the Fenway Center captures her spirit of optimism and advocacy, friends and family chose it for a gathering later this month to celebrate her activism.

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Ms. Foster, a community activist who led co-operative housing projects and served for a decade as director of education and training for the state Office of Minority and Women Business Assistance, died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease Aug. 10 in Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She was 84.

John Tobin, a former city councilor who is vice president of city and community affairs for Northeastern, said Ms. Foster was “really the ultimate when it came to disagreeing without being disagreeable.”

“She was a classic community activist who was very, very effective,” he said, calling her “an outstanding advocate” and “the unofficial spokesperson for her neighbors on the Fenway.”

Although she opposed the sale of the church, Tobin said, Ms. Foster showed her customary optimism when Northeastern bought the property. “She said, ‘OK, I may disagree with you having it, but now that you do, let’s use it. It’s in our neighborhood and we want to have access to it.’ ”


During a long, varied career, Ms. Foster’s jobs included working in the office of a California congressman and the Afghanistan Embassy in Washington, After her children were born, she settled in Boston and became executive director of Accountants for the Public Interest in Massachusetts. She was also the founding chairwoman of the board of directors for the Support Center of Massachusetts.

A fervent volunteer, she was hand-picked by elected officials to serve on several Northeastern task forces, Tobin said. Meetings that took place since her death, he added, “have seemed strained without her there.”

After she retired from her state job in 1992, she began a consulting firm and started devoting many hours to the community. A board member of the Fenway Community Development Corporation since 2003, she was also a board member and regular contributor to the Fenway News, the neighborhood’s online newspaper.

Her friend Stephen Brophy, former editor of the Fenway News, said she was “a very good writer. She took the time to do it right.” But her main contribution, he said, was “finding ways to move people toward agreement.”

Brophy said he and Ms. Foster took part in a neighborhood short-story discussion group and that “she was the one who got to the heart of what was most important in a story, and kept the discussion moving forward.”


They also watched movies together regularly in her tiny, book-filled apartment. Ms. Foster favored foreign movies with subtitles, because she had trouble hearing.

Brophy, who is a film critic for Bay Windows, ArtsMedia, and other area publications, said they would sometimes watch movies he’d seen “five or six times” and she would “really probe at them until she’d bring out things I’d never realized.”

Born Joyce Smith in Winchester in 1929, she grew up in Milton. She graduated from Milton High School in 1946 and attended Simmons College until 1948, when she married Lawrence Newdick and moved to Washington, D.C.

Their marriage ended in divorce. Newdick died several years ago.

In 1959, she and her children moved to Hull. Soon afterward, she married Elmer Foster and her third child was born. Ms. Foster took classes at the University of Massachusetts Boston and graduated with a master’s in education from Harvard University.

When her second marriage ended in divorce, she moved with her youngest child, Pacey, to Brookline, where she founded a cooperative home.

Pacey said his mother was a problem-solver who always “made the best of whatever hand she was dealt in life.”

“She didn’t want to be a single mom living alone, and she didn’t want me to be a latchkeykid,’’ he said. “In the co-op house, there was always someone around, a chore wheel in the kitchen, always somebody making dinner and doing the weekly shopping.”

Known for her passions for civil rights and the rights of workers, Ms. Foster researched her family history and spoke at a ceremony last year that marked the centennial of the Bread and Roses millworkers’ strike in Lawrence. She spoke about her father, Donald Smith, who at age 14 was forced to work 10-hours shifts in a machine shop.

Although he “carried the deafening sound of the mills with him his entire life,” she said, his “indomitable will and great strength of character may have been forged” in the mills. She added that he later enlisted in the Navy, graduated from New England Conservatory of Music at the top of his class, and taught at the school for 50 years.

A lover of classical music and art, Ms. Foster was a regular at Boston’s Symphony Hall and at the city’s museums. She also traveled in recent years, spending winters in Progresso, Mexico.

“She was very spunky, very smart, very quick-witted, and energetic,” Pacey said. “She was all about making the world a better place, leaving it better than she found it.”

In addition to her son Pacey of Cambridge, Ms. Foster leaves two other sons, Ned of Mesa, Ariz., and Matthew of Westford; a sister, Priscilla Hein of Los Angeles; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Family and friends will gather to honor her life and activism at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 15 in the Fenway Center.

It was the late 1990s when Ms. Foster launched into the late chapters of her activism, moving into a co-op house in the Fenway and immediately getting involved in the community.

“She was such a good-hearted person with the most infectious smile,” said Tracey Hunt, a friend who served with Ms. Foster on the Fenway Community Development Corporation. “We definitely lost a jewel in this neighborhood, but her community spirit will live on here.”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at