- David Hugh Porter
ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον (Homer, Odyssey 1.1)
David Hugh Porter died in Saratoga Springs, NY, on the morning of March 26, 2016, at the age of 80. At the time of his death, he was president and professor of classics emeritus of Skidmore College, where he spent nearly twenty years of his career as a beloved leader, educator, scholar, and musician. David is survived by his second wife, Helen, five children, and seven grandchildren.
David Porter was born in New York City, the only child of two musicians. A standout baseball player and minor league recruit in high school, David chose to focus on the piano instead and proceeded to receive degrees from both Swarthmore College summa cum laude in classics and the now defunct Philadelphia Conservatory. He continued to pursue both of these interests, earning a Ph.D. in classics from Princeton University in 1962 and studying with the pianist Eduard Steuermann in Philadelphia. His first teaching assignment was at Carleton College, which offered him a professorship not only in classics but also, with some reluctance, in music. David launched his scholarly career with publications on Horace’s poetry and Greek tragedy, while developing an interest in and regularly performing the challenging works of Charles Ives and John Cage. The admiration the Carleton community felt towards David manifested itself first in an appointment to the William H. Laird Professorship in the liberal arts, and then as the college’s eighth president from 1986 to 1987, after which he was recruited to serve as Skidmore College’s fifth president, a position he held from 1987 to 1999.
When David arrived at Skidmore, he joined an institution that might be charitably be described as an underachiever. With a modest endowment and reputation, Skidmore required inspired leadership, which is precisely what David provided. He launched the Journey Campaign, the proceeds for which exceeded the expectations of the Board of Trustees and the entire community, resulting in Skidmore’s largest fundraising effort in its history. David coupled the institution’s reputation in the arts and humanities with the aspiration to excel rigorously in the sciences, and during his tenure he enhanced the intellectual life on campus, solidified plans for the [End Page 543] Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery (today a leader among campus museums), and made strides to achieve more diversity among students, faculty, and staff. One little-known honor awarded David during his presidency was the naming of a new species from the Middle Devonian Period, some 400 million years ago: Viriatellina porteri.
First at Carleton and then at Skidmore, David’s teaching was legendary. His mantra to generations of Greek students was, “If you can master the Greek verb, you can master anything.” He urged students not only 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. David lived and breathed the liberal arts and did so in such a playful manner. (In) famous for his omnipresent, groan-inducing puns, David electrified students and faculty alike with a passionate enthusiasm for teaching and learning. When David played John Cage’s works for prepared piano, the audience sat on the edges of its seats, anticipating the moment when he would whip out the 2x4 and ask the assembled not to be “board.” When David taught, he typically stood on the balls of his feet with a little black notepad in his hand, 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 the classics faculty and students read the Odyssey aloud at the annual Homerathon!, all waited breathlessly for the moment when David would recite, in Greek, the sibilant Sirens or the spiteful spouse of Agamemnon...