Fridays with Fred: a letter from the ‘grand old man of Beloit,’ William Porter

A look at the longest serving professor in Beloit College history.

Professor William Porter was not the oldest of the “old guard” professors at Beloit College, but he served longer than any other professor in the college’s history—55 consecutive years. And yet it was an accident that he taught here at all.

Porter was born in 1820 and grew up in Lee, Mass. He entered Williams College at the age of 15, graduated at 19, and then attended Andover and Union theological seminaries, fitting himself for the ministry. When his carefully laid plans derailed due to the ravages of tuberculosis, he spent seven years in Florida, recuperating. Professor Robert K. Richardson once wrote about Porter’s ocean journey south: “He is surely the only man ever on the faculty to have been chased by pirates.”

By September 1852, he was ready to take up his dream of ministering to a pioneer church and so he traveled west, stopping in Beloit one Saturday to visit Dexter Clary, an agent of the Home Missionary Society. While there, he met Jackson J. Bushnell. About to absent himself on college business, Bushnell convinced the scholarly Porter to take over his mathematics classes for a few weeks. Porter fell in love with teaching and the college fell in love with Porter, making room for him on the faculty. Within a few years he was an integral part of the young college, teaching Latin, serving as academic dean and Secretary to the Faculty. He romanced President Chapin’s sister, Ellen Gertrude, and after marrying her in 1854, built a house on College Street where Morse Library now stands.

Porter taught generations of Beloit College students, becoming a beloved figure. In 1907, he closed the door to the old Latin room in Middle College for the last time and handed the half-century-old key to Professor Forest E. Calland, who used the key for another 30 years. The two professors never lost or mislaid the key in all that time, leading the Beloit Daily News to declare that they “thus [disproved] the theory of the absent-minded professor as far as Beloit College is concerned.”

After joining the emeritus ranks, Professor Porter continued to appear at daily chapel services. When he turned 90, the college began celebrating his birthdays. Students and faculty referred to him as “the grand old man of Beloit.” He passed away in 1917, a few months shy of 98 years old.

Many years later, the Beloit College Archives received Porter’s family papers, some of which predate the college. The collection includes his charming courtship letters and a series of fascinating letters from a “Grand Tour” of Europe in the 1870s. He was a prolific and entertaining letter-writer.

Some years back, the College Archives acquired two further letters for the collection, written by Porter to his New England cousin, Edward C. Porter. The earliest, penned on New Year’s Day, 1855, provides fatherly advice to a young man halfway through his first year at Yale, through examples from Porter’s own experiences. President Edward Dwight Eaton once commented that William Porter’s “serene spirit, sound judgment and accurate knowledge made him an invaluable counselor. There was in him a charming blending of dignity with self-effacing modesty, of deep earnestness with quiet humor.” Those qualities shine forth in the following excerpt:

This is your first year in college. I can remember with a good degree of distinctness the feelings with which I entered college, and the experiences of my first year there. If I could have gone to college, with my present feelings and experiences, I think I could have made the course far more profitable; and laid the foundation in both physical and mental development, for a higher growth and a more finished scholarship. And yet I was very slow to profit by the experience of those who preceded me. I wanted to learn for myself, and pretty dearly I paid for some of the lessons. I can almost see you, as you come up to one after another of the experiences of college life. I can almost feel myself, the changes of your feeling, the alternate hopes and disappointments, the high purposes and the discouraging failures. May I tell you what I should aim to do, could I again enjoy your present advantages? I should take better care of my health as the first thing. I should aim by daily exercise, by early hours, by regular habits, and by a quiet conscience, to have always a full flow of healthful life and energy, and to cultivate to a far higher degree my physical powers. I should aim at a much higher standard of scholarship; and endeavor to attain so full and generous a culture, a mind so balanced, so accustomed to discriminate, so healthy in all its action, and so symmetrical in its growth, as that it should be largely fitted for future development, for refining into a full maturity. Accurate, thorough scholarship, – the mastering of each study of the college course, will give the mind conscious strength, and be no mean preparation for the developments of this life and of the next. Then I would aim to have such a thoughtful reference to God, in all my studies and plans and efforts, as that his rich blessing should crown the whole. I would strive to have all my intercourse with my fellow students, and with my teachers, guided by the law of Christian courtesy and love. I would learn to say “no,” to the solicitations of the pleasure seeking. I would strive to realize that such opportunities could never come again; and that each passing day was a part of my probation, for a life that is absolutely endless. What progress might be made, with God as our helper, and with all our aims and purposes consecrated to him…

With love to all your Father’s family

I am

Your Afft Cousin,

William Porter.

April 05, 2012

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