Honorary Degree Citation for David Porter

From 1962 to ’87 David Porter was Professor of Classics and Music here at Carleton, serving also in 1986 as visiting professor of classics at Princeton University before becoming president of Carleton for the year 1986-87, and then president of Skidmore College in NY state from 1987-1999.  After that he was the Harry C. Payne Visiting Professor of Liberal Arts at Williams College and the Case Distinguished Visiting Professor of Classics at Indiana University.  Now he has returned to Skidmore as the Tisch Family Distinguished Professor of the Liberal Arts; he has taught primarily in classics departments, though with frequent excursions into music, modern literature (especially the Willa Cather, novelist of the plains), and book collecting. He is the author of numerous books and articles in classics, music, modern literature, and education; and as a pianist and harpsichordist he has performed throughout the United States, in Great Britain, and on radio and television.  In 1994-95 he served as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar at colleges and universities across the country.

It’s a brilliant career, isn’t it?  And yet, all his life David has been haunted by a fundamental problem.  You see, he just couldn’t choose definitively between classics and music.  Even as a college student at Swarthmore David needed special arrangements to accommodate his passion to study piano with Edward Steuermann in Philadelphia while doing his B.A.  In earning a classics Ph.D. at Princeton David succeeded in keeping his work with Steuermann under the department radar, but unfortunately the director of the Danforth Foundation, which was supporting his graduate studies, found out and threatened to cut him off after one more year: “David,” he said, “it’s time you grew up.”  But maturity and a final choice was postponed yet again in 1962, when Carleton President John Nason, formerly President of Swarthmore and then the only Carleton graduate to become President here, made a special appointment for  David jointly in Classical Languages and Music.

It was a bold and immensely successful move, as David became a legendary teacher and performer at Carleton, and a symbol of the multiple engagement ideally expected of all of us—especially including you graduates—who profess the liberal arts.  But ten years later when I came here, the idea was still controversial.  A well known Professor of English terrified me by demanding, “How can you possibly respect a man who lectures from a piano bench?”  I said to myself, “Uh-oh, what will he say when he learns I play the bassoon?”

Indeed I ended up performing constantly with David, serving as that optional bass instrument which doubles the left hand of the harpsichordist in baroque music.  I kept a very sharp eye on my chairman’s left hand—a practice I earnestly commend to all you junior colleagues—as together we accompanied countless Carleton students and faculty.  Among them I might mention especially David’s late wife Laudie Porter, beloved teacher of flute at Carleton, in whose memory a sundial now stands over there in front of Laird hall.

As a pianist, David showed a shocking inclination for weird music, by composers like Charles Ives, who wrote in multiple keys using a bizarre combination of folk melodies, patriotic songs, and hymn tunes in a formal structure very hard to follow.  David became a specialist in Ives’s Concord Sonata, which requires a 2 by 4, precisely 14 ¾ inches long, to hold down clusters of keys.  He terrified us even more by performing the music of John Cage, who in some pieces requires the pianist to insert some eighty pieces of hardware between the strings to create unearthly sounds.  (“That piano cost a lot!”)

In classics David taught Latin and Greek at all levels, insisting particularly on teaching part of the elementary Greek sequence every year, and becoming extremely well known on campus not only for his countless insufferable puns but also through his Classical Mythology course, given in Olin Auditorium for up to 175 students.  There he lectured twice a week, but for the third meeting offered several small sections dealing with mythology in a variety of modern genres—drama, painting, opera—and even a basic language intro called “A Modicum of Greek.”  The course’s final creative projects filled the campus with sculptures, displays, and performances of every imaginable kind.

David’s vision for classics at Carleton finally gave to our department the imagination and the staffing to provide a range of courses beyond the learning of the Latin and Greek, with classes and first year seminars in civilization, literature, women’s studies, and material culture, making it possible for every Carl to have some kind of classical experience.  Beginning in David’s time and as a result of his vision this department has produced a truly remarkable number of professional educators in classics and other fields, six chairs of classics departments that I know of, and national and institutional prizewinners.  Please allow me to pass over his brilliant departmental appointments, but I conclude by reminding you that finally he went off into yet another field, and became a college president.

President Poskanzer, it is my distinct pleasure to present one of your predecessors, the man who couldn’t decide and wouldn’t grow up, President David Hugh Porter, for the Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters honoris causa.