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Skidmore College
Skidmore Retirees

David H. Porter

David Porter, classicist, musician, and former college president, died March 26, 2016, after an accidental fall while out for a walk. He was 80. 

Born in New York City in 1935 to Hugh Porter, president of Union Theological Seminary’s Music School, and Ethel K. Flentye, a teacher and musician—David went to Swarthmore College, where he studied both music and classics, while also enrolled at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music, studying with noted pianist and composer Eduard Steuermann. In 1962 David earned a doctorate in classics from Princeton University and then moved to Carleton College in Minnesota, where he spent the next quarter-century as a popular teacher and scholar, holding Carleton’s W. H. Laird Professorship of Liberal Arts.

In 1986 he was asked by Carleton to serve as its interim president, and the next year he was recruited as Skidmore’s fifth president. He moved to Saratoga Springs and was soon joined by his second wife, Helen Luebke Porter.  Over the next 12 years, he helped transform Skidmore into a nationally recognized institution, strengthening its curriculum, diversifying its faculty and staff, expanding financial aid, overseeing a major fundraising campaign, and planning for the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery.

Upon arriving at Skidmore, he met individually with every member of the faculty, and he kept abreast of their research and publications. He was known for “jamming” with students in small musical groups at his house and for his annual lecture-concert for freshmen, “The Well-Tampered Clavier: Play, Musical and Otherwise.”  

David studied harpsichord with Gustav Leonhardt and performed on piano and harpsichord locally, nationally, and internationally—equally at home with Beethoven and Bach as with the avant-garde Ives and Cage. His intellectual passions were equally broad and deep: he produced monographs on Greek tragedy and Horace as well as articles and other works on Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, the Hogarth Press, and Eduard Steuermann.

He was a regular contributor to national op-ed pages on topics ranging from the cost of college to the relevance of Horace’s odes, from student volunteerism to music education. He chaired the board of Value Line and served on the boards of the Adirondack Trust Company, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the artists’ retreat Yaddo, and the Willa Cather Foundation.

David retired from the Skidmore presidency in 1998 and taught at Indiana University and Williams College before returning to Skidmore as a member of the Classics Department, where he held Skidmore’s Tisch Family Distinguished Professorship. Even after retiring from the faculty in 2013, he continued offering his “Well-Tampered Clavier” to new generations of Skidmore students.

President Philip Glotzbach, in an email to the campus community, noted that the week before his death David attended Skidmore’s annual David H. Porter Classical World Lecture. Glotzbach wrote, “As was his wont, David spent much of the dinner following that lecture speaking with students, forming a connection with a new generation of scholars and displaying, as always, his undiminished talent for and love of puns and wordplay.”

David is survived by his wife, Helen; children Hugh Edwin Porter, Laudie Everett Porter, Helen Carol Porter, David Gray Porter, and Cathrin Ann Lawton; and seven grandchildren. The family suggests memorial contributions to either Carleton’s Laudie Porter Memorial Fund or Skidmore’s David and Helen Porter Scholarship Fund.  

A memorial service for David Porter’s family, friends, and colleagues was held at Skidmore on April 8, 2016. A summary of the event is here, and video from the livestream is embedded below.