Memories of David Porter

“If you can master the Greek verb, you can master anything.” That was President and Professor Emeritus David Porter’s mantra, and by it he not only urged students to pursue Classics and the humanities, but also to raise their game in any intellectual endeavor and to have faith in their abilities. As a teacher, he was encouraging and supportive, animated and engaged. Prof. Porter lived and breathed the liberal arts, and did so in such a playful manner. We all knew him for his omnipresent groan-inducing puns; but those of us who shared the classroom with Prof. Porter  – students and faculty alike – also witnessed an electrifying, passionate enthusiasm for teaching and learning, usually punctuated with puns. When Prof. Porter played John Cage’s works for prepared piano, as he did often for first-year students and their faculty, we all sat on the edges of our seats, anticipating the moment when he would whip out the 2’x4’ and ask us not to be “board.” When he taught, with that little black notepad in his hand, he frequently stood on the balls of his feet and, like a shortstop for his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, he would pivot to the board, or to a student with an insightful response, and elicit that same passion and excitement from his class.

To watch him teach Greek tragedy – say, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon – was to watch poetry in action. Swirls of chalk on the board, echoing his own movements in the classroom, helped students grasp the seemingly unfathomable cycle of bloodshed in the House of Atreus. When we would read the Odyssey aloud at the Classics Department’s annual Homerathon!, we all waited breathlessly for the moment when Prof. Porter would recite, in Greek, the sibilant Sirens or the spiteful spouse of Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra.

Through it all was Prof. Porter’s playful nature – the wicked grin on his face as he read Homer’s Greek, or when he would regale us with laughter with the stale joke in which a tailor asks a Classics professor about his torn pants, “Euripides?” To which the classicist would reply, “Eumenides?” Or when he told a class he had to miss a session because he was having part of his intestine removed, and reassured them with “It’s ok; my favorite form of punctuation has always been the semi-colon.” Because Prof. Porter never tired of such awful puns, neither did we. We shall miss his erudition, laced with playfulness and joy, most of all.

The evening before Prof. Porter passed away was spent doing precisely what he enjoyed so much. It began with the annual David Porter Classical World Lecture, delivered by the ancient historian Barry Strauss of Cornell University, on his book The Death of Caesar. Prof. Porter and over 100 students, faculty, staff, retirees, and members of the Saratoga community gathered to hear the talk and honor him. In fact, all I had to do was mention that he was in the auditorium and the audience spontaneously broke into applause. After the talk, 18 faculty and students, including Prof. Porter, repaired to a local Indian restaurant, where he engaged Prof. Strauss on the topic of leadership, spoke at length with students about studying Greek and Latin (he was our best recruiter), mentoring the faculty at length about their careers, and ordering Lamb Vindaloo – spicy. That’s how we want to remember Prof. Porter – engaged in scholarship, enthusiastic about learning, mentoring his colleagues, and spicy. The opening words of Homer’s Odyssey might well have been composed with him in mind: “Sing to me, Muse, of the man of many twists and turns.” That was David Hugh Porter –the man of many twists and turns.

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