In Memory

In Memory:
P. Wesley Foster Jr. ’56

In 1968, P. Wesley Foster Jr. ’56 co-founded Long & Foster. In pursuit of his impressive career achievements, Foster always maintained a personal sense of service and a professional family company atmosphere that prized humility and work ethic over external image.—Photo courtesy of Long & Foster.

P. Wesley Foster Jr. ’56, co-founder of one of the largest independent real estate firms in the United States who served on the boards of the VMI Foundation and VMI Keydet Club and two terms on the VMI Board of Visitors, died March 17, 2023. He was 89.

For many people in the Mid-Atlantic region, Foster’s name was a household word for decades. The company he co-founded in 1968, Long & Foster Realtors—which now has more than 200 offices and more than 8,500 agents working in eight states—has helped hundreds of thousands of people buy a home.

Building a company with that reach had to start somewhere, and for Foster, it was at VMI. Foster came to the Institute from the Atlanta, Georgia, area. An English major, Foster played varsity football for three years and participated as a rat in football, wrestling, and track. The historian for his class, he was on the General Committee and Executive Committee during his 1st Class year. Foster was a member of the Honor Court and Officer of the Guard Association president. He applied his literary interests to The Bomb and The Cadet, for which he was the Corps editor for the 1956 edition and a sportswriter, respectively.

He soldiered for two years as a U.S. Army field artillery officer in Germany, during which time he was the fire direction officer of an Honest John rocket battery assigned to the 8th Infantry Division, as well as the special weapons liaison officer to the Bundeswehr’s III Corps. He received the Army Commendation Medal and left service as a first lieutenant.

A preview of his often-audacious approach to business is what he did immediately after he left the Army in 1959: He drove a Volkswagen Beetle from Germany to Moscow and back. He was almost broke when he returned, but the Army shipped him and his car home free.

In 1959, he started working for Kaiser Aluminum’s Residential Products Division and ran a national program promoting aluminum building products to homebuilders throughout the country.

In 1963, he started selling houses for a Washington, D.C., area homebuilder. Three years later, he began learning the brokerage business at a small real estate company in Annandale, Virginia. There, he met Hank Long, a 1959 graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and a former U.S. Air Force B-47 pilot. In 1968, they struck out on their own, establishing Long & Foster. Foster oversaw the company’s residential real estate business, and Long managed the commercial business. They employed one agent. A coin toss decided the name of the company. Long won, and therefore, as Foster once put it, “he received top billing on the company letterhead.”

A company’s success often is based on being in the right place at the right time. In 1968, the D.C. area’s reputation was something of a dull company town, and Long & Foster posted $1 million in sales. In the 1970s, the area began transforming into a more cosmopolitan area with a burgeoning private sector, and development markedly accelerated. By 1982, the local residential and commercial real estate markets were booming, and Long & Foster had moved into Maryland and the District of Columbia. In that year, it reported $1 billion in sales.

Three years earlier, the investment company Merrill Lynch had taken notice of Long & Foster’s success and resiliency (it survived a serious market downturn in the 1970s) and offered to buy it. Eager to become a commercial developer, Long wanted to accept the offer. Foster was enjoying himself too much, however, and he bought out his partner.

Foster’s ambitions were expansive, and soon Long & Foster had established itself in other states. He also transformed Long & Foster into a company that was truly comprehensive, offering everything from mortgage and settlement services to homeowner’s insurance and property management.

In 2017, Foster sold his company to Home Services of America, an affiliate of Berkshire Hathaway, and became chairman emeritus. At the time of the sale, Long & Foster was, according to The Washington Post, “the nation’s largest independent real estate brokerage by sales volume.” The firm’s success continued, and according to the company’s website, it sold $27 billion worth of real estate in 2022.

There are many reasons for the extraordinary success of Long & Foster. But undoubtedly, it owed much to Foster’s character. The author of his history in the 1956 edition of The Bomb wrote, “Those who know Wes well are sure of his capabilities as a leader.” In a tribute to Foster on its website, the company mentioned his embrace of technology which he gave to his agents, and his decision to establish a school that trained his agents—and those of other firms, as well.

This success was also rooted in Foster’s determination to maintain a small, family company atmosphere throughout the enterprise. He maintained a policy, for example, under which any agent could call him on any issue. Furthermore, no matter how large his company became, he focused not on its image but on the work at hand. As he explained in an interview in 2003, “We don’t want to play big man on campus. We want to be humble but do a hell of a lot more than others.”

His history in The Bomb also mentioned Foster’s “ability to judge quickly and effectively difficult situations.” That ability stood him in good stead and helped preserve his company in an industry known as much for its “valleys” as its “peaks.” One year, in fact, he turned down his salary to ensure the company met its financial goals.

A dedicated professional citizen, Foster helped found two organizations of major brokerage firms, the Leading Real Estate Companies of the World and the Realty Alliance. He also served on the boards of corporations and local business organizations, including The Lane Construction Corporation, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the First American Bank of Maryland, and the First Union National Bank of Virginia. He served as the chairman of the Washington/Baltimore Regional Authority and the Business Development Bureau of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

"In all the capacities in which he has served VMI, he has done so with unfailing grace, inextinguishable warmth, and an unflagging devotion to the Institute.”

Conrad B. Hall ’65

Foster’s success and leadership gained him widespread recognition. The Washington Business Journal presented him with its 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award. He was a fixture on the lists of the Commonwealth’s top business leaders published annually by Virginia Business Magazine. In 2004, Foster was inducted into the Washington Business Hall of Fame, sponsored by Washingtonian magazine, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, and Junior Achievement of Greater Washington.

Several organizations recognized his philanthropy and civic service. For example, in March 2005, B’nai B’rith International presented him with its Distinguished Achievement Award. The ceremony’s program noted, “Wes Foster’s commitment to helping people goes far beyond just finding them a place to live. He also works to better the communities he services.”

Foster dedicated much of his time to working on VMI’s behalf. He served on the VMI Keydet Club Board of Governors from 1983–89 and was a leader in the Sesquicentennial Campaign’s effort in the Washington area. He was a VMI Foundation Board of Trustees member from 1990–96. He then served on the Executive Committee of VMI’s campaign, Reveille: A Call to Excel.

In 2007, he began eight years of service on the VMI Board of Visitors. He would serve on the Academic Affairs Committee; the Athletics Committee; and the Audit, Finance, and Planning Committee. He was the chairman of the Nominating and Governance Committee for two years. “Wes’ superb reputation as a straightforward and strong businessman of incredible integrity preceded him,” remembered Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III ’62, superintendent emeritus. Foster immediately applied his acumen and experience to the board’s work. “He had strong views on management, and he was conservative when it came to the budget and financial controls. His advice was especially valuable during the financial crisis of 2008–09 when state funding was dropping, and the markets were in turmoil.”

“Wes also had an immense reservoir of common sense that he drew on during his service on the board,” he continued, “and from which VMI benefited.”
George P. “Pete” Ramsey III ’72, whose service coincided with Foster’s and who rose to become the board’s president, said, “Wes quickly grasped any issue—academics, athletics, or finance—and developed a deep knowledge of them. So, while he was usually quiet at these meetings, this ability and his experience and reputation meant that when he spoke, people listened. Wes always got his point across in few words, and he just nailed it most every time.”

Foster was never, however, just about business. “He was a wonderful guy to be around,” recalled Ramsey, “and we became very good friends.” Peay also remembered his “exceptionally dry sense of humor.” Ramsey recalled Foster’s relationship with another colleague on the Board of Visitors, G. Marshall Mundy ’56. “They were opposites in many ways, but they just meshed beautifully. They were just fun to be around.”

Supported by scholarships as a cadet, Foster made it a point to be generous in the establishment of scholarships, including several that provide grant-in-aid assistance to players who “walk on” or don’t have full scholarships. Foster asked that these scholarships bear the names of people who influenced his life, including his brother, the late Larry A. Foster ’63; Robert Shelley, Class of 1926, the man who persuaded him to come to VMI; and Joseph Mack ’56, who died in action in Vietnam.

Foster had fond memories of his professors in the English Department, especially Col. Carrington “King Tut” Tutwiler and Col. Herbert “Dodo” Dillard, Class of 1934. In 2001, therefore, he established a discretionary fund for the then-English and Fine Arts Department. In 2022, he also directed a substantial gift to the General J.H. Binford Peay III ’62 Endowment for Academic Excellence.

While this support of cadet-athletes and the academic program are important, the most obvious mark of Foster’s philanthropy at VMI is the renovation of the Institute’s football facility. One of the goals of Vision 2039, the strategic plan adopted by the Institute in the early years of Peay’s tenure as superintendent, was a thorough improvement of VMI’s physical infrastructure, including the athletics facilities. Foster provided a major gift that made the transformation of the football facilities possible. That gift and the transformation of the stadium—which VMI named the P. Wesley Foster Jr. ’56 Stadium in recognition of his generosity—had the knock-on effect of jumpstarting Vision 2039. “His was the first significant gift that helped us fulfill one of the goals of Vision 2039,” said Peay. “It demonstrated that the plan’s goals were indeed feasible, and people began to think, ‘Yes, we can do this.’”

Peay recalls that he later presented Foster with an architectural model of the finished stadium. “He was thrilled to receive it, and he proudly displayed it in his office.”

Whatever he supported on post, Foster’s focus was always on the Corps of Cadets. In a 2004 story in the Roanoke Times, he stated, “I am humbled every time I meet the bright young men and women who are cadets. If I can help VMI develop their leadership potential, I feel I have accomplished something very important.”

In 2003, the VMI Foundation presented him with its Distinguished Service Award. Conrad B. Hall ’65, the organization’s president at the time, said, “For many years, Wes Foster has been one of the Institute’s most prominent alumni … recognized by his peers and the public as a conscientious, honorable businessman. He also has been a tireless advocate for VMI, especially its citizen-soldier concept, and has been a constant and charitable supporter of all aspects of the VMI education. In all the capacities in which he has served VMI, he has done so with unfailing grace, inextinguishable warmth, and an unflagging devotion to the Institute.”

The best summation of Foster’s impact on the Institute is a sentence in the resolution the Board of Visitors presented him when he left the board, “Simply put, VMI remains one of the premier colleges in the United States because of people like Wes Foster.”

Foster is survived by his wife, Betty, whose bust of Foster is displayed in Preston Library; two sons; one daughter; and six grandchildren.

  • Scott Belliveau

    Scott Belliveau '83 Communications Officer - Executive Projects

    The communications officer supports the strategy for all communications, including web content, public relations messages and collateral pieces in order to articulate and promote the mission of the VMI Alumni Agencies and promote philanthropy among varied constituencies.