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John Farmer’s ‘Reflections’ column

by Rev. John Howard Farmer

Visit the Irvington Baptist Church website

Nancy Oliver Foster

(From the introduction of A Virginia Lady: The Christian Life of Nancy Oliver Foster, by JHF, 2010)

I met the senior Mrs. Nancy Cunningham Oliver Foster (1895-1992) when I came to Irvington as interim pastor in October of 1986. I do not think it presumptuous to say we fell in love, each with the other. Nancy was the daughter of a dentist-turned-preacher, Dr. George H. Oliver (1862-1928), who had moved his family by steamboat from Berryville to Irvington when Nancy was 8.

When I landed at the Irvington Baptist Church (IBC), Nancy had just retired from being our church clerk, having turned the chore over to her daughter-in-law, Nancy Norris Foster (1923-2015). She was proud and faithful to be in the Hattie Simmons Women’s Bible class, where she’d been class secretary for decades and an ardent supporter of our former Women’s Mission Union.

Mrs. Foster, along with the late Senator Norris’ daughter, the younger Mrs. Nancy Foster, had known Mrs. Alfred I. duPont (Jessie Dew Ball duPont, 1884-1970) from earlier days on the Northern Neck. In fact, it was Mrs. Foster who intervened on behalf of our ninth IBC pastor, the Rev. Mr. William Wright (1912-2002), whose son William (1943-1999) was a special-needs lad. Mrs. duPont responded by funding young master Wright’s education at the Woods School, Pa, until Medicaid was introduced.

Those connections brought our little church to Mrs. duPont’s attention, who further invested in our 1960s renovation, when new lights and pews were installed. From that time on, our church has been able to access the largesse of Mrs. duPont’s estate by petition. By the way, our community fund was established by Mrs. Foster to maximize memorials and assist our church in meeting the needs of locals.

Nancy was still living at her Carter Creek-front cottage and driving, though driving was soon to close and I might add not a moment too soon.

Sunday school assemblies were grand. Mrs. Foster always offered up a flowery piano prelude to settle us into pews. She played the morning hymns and then sent us off to class. I found out that she could play anything, absolutely anything and couldn’t see a note, nor the keyboard.

Early on in my pastorate our organist feigned discomfort with special music. If someone helped Mrs. Foster to the piano she’d rescue us. No practice, no music, no matter—she was ready. When a soloist needed a lower or higher range she’d move it into that key with aplomb. One morning I’d found a hymn I wanted to offer; it was in a key where once my voice lived. Just a few bars into the tune she realized I was struggling and played loudly ahead of me and walked the hymn into my comfort zone—that was a God-given talent.

When one stood next to the piano, or the congregation swelled aloud in praise, she was spot-on with her accompaniment. If one walked away from her hearing, though, her fingers also wandered off. Even that was delightful as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” morphed into the “Robert E. Lee March,” or “Pomp and Circumstance,” or once, even the “Beer Barrel Polka.”

On one Mother’s Day, the two Nancys were on their way to church when the senior said to the junior, “Well, I’ll finally be the eldest lady in church today.” The younger replied to the elder, “What are you going to do, kill off Mrs. Viola Lumpkin (1893-1996),” who was nearing 100 at the time? A chuckle, nothing more than a chuckle, rang out. Nancy senior had a keen sense of humor.

When the late William B. Graham (1922 -2004) decided to give the church a new organ, he asked me to shop the project about. I went to the Allen Organ Company, College Park, Md. and found what I felt was the best buy for the best church. It turned out that the Bethel United Methodist Church had just acquired a similar instrument.

Well, now back home, I arranged a mini-recital for our music committee to travel to Lively to hear and see the new organ prototype. By this time Nancy was living at The Lancashire, Kilmarnock. I arranged to pick her up and travel to the organ rendezvous.

The Allen Company representative and the Bethel organist put the instrument though its paces handsomely. As night drew on, I, knowing of Mrs. Foster’s long tenure as a piano teacher, College of William and Mary accompanist, as well as organist for the Williamsburg Baptist Church, asked her if she’d like to play the organ. This dear lady had once traveled alone off to Ohio to purchase a Moeller Pipe Organ for the Williamsburg Church… she knew organs!

No,” she quipped, “But I want to thank everybody for a wonderful evening; I can’t remember when I’ve been out so late at night and had so much fun!” So much for the pastor’s expert witness. You know, she put it in perspective. It was always wonderful to be in her presence and in the company of church friends.