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Monument Maker

Charles Foster has seen to it that memories of George H.W. Bush, James Baker and LBJ are set in stone

Published in 2021 Texas Super Lawyers magazine

It was 2015 and Charles Foster thought it was high time President Lyndon Johnson had a monument in Houston. So the immigration attorney spearheaded a project to build a larger-than-life statue, installed next to Houston’s federal courthouse last January. LBJ taught high school in Houston in the 1930s—before Foster was born—but Foster met him in 1960 when Johnson was campaigning for president. And LBJ’s aunt and uncle owned a house behind Foster’s childhood home.

The 8-foot bronze statue, weighing about a ton, is surrounded by six granite pylons that list LBJ’s accomplishments (photo p. 8). “He enacted more significant domestic legislation than any president in American history,” Foster says. He ticks off Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as among LBJ’s legacy. The monument was dedicated 

Aug. 6, the anniversary of Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His daughters, Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Bird Johnson, attended; Luci compared Foster to her dad as a “force of nature” for a cause he believes in.

Foster isn’t new to statue-making. He also initiated The George H.W. Bush Monument in Sesquicentennial Park in downtown Houston. Dedicated in 2004, it features a waterfall and bas-reliefs about Bush’s life and accomplishments (photo p. 8). Foster later headed up a monument to another Houstonian, former Secretary of State James Baker, whose statue “looks” across Buffalo Bayou at his friend Bush 41. 

Why the fascination with presidents? It dates back to when Foster, a Boy Scout sitting up front at the dedication of Falcon Dam, got a wink from President Dwight Eisenhower. Years later, he was blown away by LBJ speaking to his junior college class; he then worked as a summer intern at the U.S. Department of Justice when LBJ was president. 

It didn’t stop there. Foster worked with President George H.W. Bush on U.S.-China relations, served as senior immigration policy adviser to George W. Bush during his run for president in 2000, and worked for President Barack Obama—whom he calls “the true heir to JFK in terms of inspiration and class”—on immigration policy. Back in 1993, when the elder Bush returned to Houston after losing in ’92, the former president seemed semi-apologetic to Foster over his loss. Foster thought Houston would at least get a presidential library—but that went to Texas A&M, harshening the blow for Foster, a UT grad who “bleeds orange.” The two men remained friends, and Foster eventually hatched his idea for a monument, which he sketched on the back of a napkin.

One of the most memorable moments of Foster’s life occurred while George H.W. Bush was still vice president. Foster had to advise him that one of China’s premier ballet dancers, Li Cunxin, was trying to defect to the U.S. and was being held against his will by the Chinese officials who had accompanied their nation’s ballet troupe to Houston. Beyond the diplomatic ramifications, the vice president needed to know because his wife, Barbara, was on the board of the Houston Ballet, which was hosting the Chinese dancers. Foster’s dramatic—and ultimately successful—efforts to keep Li in the U.S. were documented in the 2009 movie Mao’s Last Dancer. Kyle MacLachlan played Foster.

As for his interactions with presidents, Foster is humble: “I was honored to support and work for each of them in some minor capacity.”

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