When Don Porter was growing up in Wesley Chapel, he attended elementary school at a one-room schoolhouse and rode a bus to Dade City for high school.
Much has changed in the Pasco County community where he grew up — and Porter and his extended family have played a considerable role in creating that change.
The memorial service to honor his life was July 12 in the conference center at Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch, a satellite campus of Pasco-Hernando State College. The campus opened in January on 6 acres of the 60 acres of land the Porters donated to the college.
That campus is just one tangible sign of the forward-thinking and big picture approach that the entire family has used in making decisions regarding the development of thousands of acres they have owned for decades, Porter’s son, J.D. Porter, said in a recent interview.
The Shops at Wiregrass, a regional shopping mall, and Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel, an 80-bed facility, are two other projects built within the 5,100-acre development of regional impact approved in 2006 on the Porters’ land.
Porter, the eldest son of the late James and Martha Porter, moved into Wesley Chapel in the 1940s, long before development hit the area.
He died on July 1, at age 73.
In personal interviews and during the memorial, family and friends described the kind of man Porter was.
They characterized him as a passionate fighter for justice, but also a patient listener. They said he was a deep thinker, a loving father and a faithful friend.
Porter enjoyed single malt scotch and Little Debbie snack cakes. He had musical tastes that ranged from Pavarotti to Dave Brubeck, had his own sense of style, and was a fierce competitor in everything from baseball to Scrabble to table tennis, they added.
State Rep. Will Weatherford said he was 26 and making his first run for state office when he met Porter. Over the past decade, Weatherford had numerous roundtable chats with Porter, his brothers, Tom and Bill, and his son, J.D. The men didn’t talk about what Wiregrass would look like in the next five to 10 years, Weatherford said. They took a much longer view.
“I never knew a man who could speak less and say more than Don Porter,” Weatherford said.
Whatever project they worked on together, “it was always about the long-term sustainability and legacy of this community,” Weatherford said.
“In my business, you get to meet a lot of families that have very large landholdings. It’s not rare for a family to have thousands of acres — there’s a lot them in the state of Florida,” Weatherford said. “But I’ve never met a family, I’ve never met a man — until I met Don — that was so keenly more focused on the future of his community than on how much money he would make off of it.”
While Porter was proud of the accomplishments in the development arena, he would resist being credited as the leader or the patriarch of the family, J.D. Porter said. That role belonged to Don’s father, James Porter.
J.D. Porter said his father, his uncles and the rest of the extended Porter family have shared a collective vision and a collective will for what has been done so far, and for the foundation that has been laid for future achievements.
“Development was a very important part of his life,” J.D. Porter said. “But if you had a top five list, I’m not sure it would make it.
“At No. 1 was family. It wasn’t just my mom, my sister and myself,” he said, but his dad also cared tremendously for his parents, his brothers and their families.
Porter’s daughter, Quinn Miller, recalled a father who taught her how to ride a bicycle, accompanied her to father-daughter dances, and was her biggest fan during her softball days.
Known for his deep, rich voice, Porter did some radio broadcasting in college and later in Zephyrhills. He also used those talents to announce Quinn’s softball and J.D.’s baseball games.
“He was the voice of Berkeley Prep softball,” Miller said.
Porter was quite the athlete himself. He held a baseball state record for years after striking out 20 of the 21 batters he faced during a championship. He attended Ole Miss on a baseball scholarship, and he used the signing bonus he received from the Houston Colt 45s to buy his family’s home on land now occupied by the hospital.
Miller said her dad taught her to think for herself. She remembers being frustrated by him when she would want to commiserate over a problem or disappointment, and he wouldn’t let her or offer her advice.
Instead, he listened and then asked her questions.
She now understands that he wanted her to arrive at her own solutions.
“He had a way of offering perspective by forcing introspection, not (offering) his opinion,” Miller said.
Porter’s cousin, Mike Gramling, and Porter’s friends Will Roberts, Doug Manson and Tom Touchton, also spoke at the memorial. When the Porters arrived in Wesley Chapel, there was no electricity and the family lived in a moonshiner’s cabin, Gramling said. Porter’s mother, Martha, prepared meals on a Coleman stove.
Porter learned to drive a tractor when he was 6, and he didn’t have a store-bought shirt until he went to college, Gramling said.
Roberts said they used to joke that Porter was “sweater-rich.”
“He had more sweaters than Bill Cosby,” Roberts said.
He recalled a time when Porter took him, his brother and J.D. to a basketball game at the University of South Florida Sun Dome. Porter was wearing a beret, a sweater, brown leather pants and black Italian zippered ankle boots.
“Nowadays, the sight of man dressed like that with three young boys might be cause for an Amber Alert. But that was Don in all of his glory,” Roberts said, drawing a roar of laughter from the nearly 240 at the memorial.
Manson was in his late 20s when he met Porter.
It was obvious, he said, that Porter’s life was centered on his family. The two men never had a conversation that didn’t begin with an update on their families.
When Manson had a problem he didn’t know how to solve, he turned to Porter, who would listen for as long as it took, whether that was a few minutes or hours.
“He showed me what friendship is,” Manson said.
Porter was a multi-dimensional man, with many interests, said Touchton, who knew Porter for about 60 years. One of his favorite poets was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, of the beat poet generation.
Porter especially liked Ferlinghetti’s “I am Waiting,” which repeated this phrase, “I am perpetually awaiting the rebirth of wonder.”
“I suggest Don has to wait no longer,” Touchton said, “because in leaving us, he has finally found his rebirth of wonder.”
Published July 16, 2014
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