Dean Porter, 1939-2022

22 comments on Dean Porter, 1939-2022
4 minutes

My father’s best friend passed away on September 1 after an illness. Dean Porter was like a second father to me.

Dean at Christmas in 1984

Dean and his wife Carol moved into the house next to my parents in 1966, in that starter-house neighborhood we called Rabbit Hill in South Bend. Dad and Dean clicked, and began a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives. The day my father died, Dean called me right away. His first words, strained with emotion, got right to the point: “My best friend has died!”

Mom and Dad and Dean and Carol played canasta nearly every Saturday night from 1966 until my parents moved to Indianapolis in 2014. My brother and I grew up with their daughters Kellie and Tracie. When we were all small, Dean drove a big Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon. It was the car we all rode in when we did something together because it could hold all eight of us. We four children rode on the floor in the wayback, where there were no seat belts — a real sign of those 1970s times.

Dean was a Professor of Art at the University of Notre Dame. He led the fundraising for the construction of the Snite Museum of Art on that campus, and was the Snite’s first Director. We all attended the Snite’s grand opening, and the openings of more gallery showings there than I can remember. Because of Dean, my family had an unusual amount of contact with the art world, and with artists. A few times, a living artist showed his or her work at the Snite, and we got to meet them. I remember one artist in particular: Christo, who was famous for audacious works such as wrapping the German Reichstag in fabric, and erecting 3,100 yellow and blue umbrellas in California and Japan. Christo had a cold and limp handshake.

My father’s career could not have been more different from Dean’s, as Dad worked in manufacturing quality control, later rising to middle-management positions before wrapping up his career as a plant manager. Manufacturing in northern Indiana declined heavily starting in the 1980s, and for a time Dad was unemployed. This happened as the Snite was preparing to open. Dad had dabbled in small woodworking projects, making little boxes and other items. This was enough for Dean to give Dad the job of building all of the benches for patrons to sit on throughout the museum, as well as most of the pedestals that sculptures and other art would rest on, and a great number of frames for paintings and photographs. Dad simply lacked the confidence that he was capable of this work. Dean would hear nothing of it, and insisted that Dad do it. Dean was very convincing. Dad did the work. The last time I was in the Snite, Dad’s benches were still there.

Dad’s work at the Snite led to word-of-mouth woodworking jobs throughout northern Indiana. He built all sorts of bespoke wood furniture for peoples’ homes, and even religious items for priests and chapels all around Notre Dame. This work sustained our family through some rough years, until Dad was able to get back into manufacturing. Dad kept doing custom woodworking on the side until he retired.

Dean even helped me with employment once. While I was in college I always worked during the summers so I could buy books an incidentals the next year. One summer I struggled to find work. The last-resort summer job in northern Indiana was detassling corn, which is hot, dirty, tedious, and unpleasant. But I was over a barrel and about to sign up. Then Dean called me to say that the woman who ran the museum gift shop was about to go on a long medical leave, and asked if I’d step in while she was away. I was saved! I sat in that air-conditioned gift shop all summer working the easiest job I ever had.

In my adult years I saw less and less of Dean and his family. I always wished I could see them more often, but we all had full lives that had gone in different directions. I’m especially happy that I made the time to visit them a few years ago in their home. Even then I could see that Dean’s health was declining, as it does as one ages. Still, when Tracie contacted me to say that her father had passed away, it was a shock. In my mind, Dean was as vital and healthy as he was when I was a kid. He always will be.

Dean Porter was 83. To learn much more about his life and accomplishments, read his obituary here.


22 responses to “Dean Porter, 1939-2022”

  1. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    Sorry for your loss Jim. I still teach Ceramics part time and I’m sad to say that most of the professors who taught me have passed on. It’s sad to see a generation dying off.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The generations do pass on. With luck, later generations have learned well from them and can carry on.

  2. Lone Primate Avatar

    That was endearing and warm, Jim. I’m pleased that you and your family had such fine friends for so long. A genuine treasure and a blessing. You yourself are part of Mr. Porter’s legacy, and that’s wonderful.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks my friend!

  3. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Love this story, especially about him having your Dad build the benches for the museum. Back when you could just give a person a job you know they could do and not have to go through multiple hoops to get everyone to sign off…a lost era…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Oh, I don’t know, I still see that happening today. I have a minor side gig I do that’s entirely on a virtual handshake. She sends me money, I do the thing for her at a piece rate until the money’s burned down, repeat.

  4. Tracie Silva Avatar
    Tracie Silva

    Beautiful! Thank you for the kind words about Dad, I know he’d enjoy reading your blog. Your family was a second family to all of us. And your dad did some incredible woodwork, there is evidence of it throughout Mom and Dad’s house. Those Saturday evening card games were special times.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Tracie! It’s hard to see these connections from our childhoods pass on.

  5. fishyfisharcade Avatar

    Sorry for your loss Jim. It’s a very nice piece you’ve written about Dean.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you so much.

  6. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    This is a very nice tribute Jim.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks my friend. He’s so well known in art circles, especially for his work documenting the artists of Taos, NM. I wanted to write something more about the man himself and how he positively affected our family.

  7. tcshideler Avatar

    Jim, I’m so sorry for the loss of a lion in your life Dr. Porter was both simultaneously his obituary and just Dean to you, and that’s important.

    Dean Porter did a number of wonderful things in terms of what hobbies he reveled in as a kid, to the opportunities he provided for your dad and you, among the rest of his accomplishments.

    I’;m very glad you and his daughter have stayed in touch. What a great mentor.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      One of the reasons I wrote this is because Dean will largely be remembered for his work in the art world and at ND, and I wanted to put something out there that was more personal.

  8. Greg Clawson Avatar
    Greg Clawson

    The greatest legacy a person can leave behind is to be remembered and loved. May God bless his family.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Greg!

  9. brandib1977 Avatar

    What a lovely remembrance, Jim. I’m so very sorry for your loss.

    Between your warm storytelling and his obituary, it’s clear that he was a special person who left a lasting mark on the world.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Brandi! We’ll all miss him.

  10. Shirley B. Avatar
    Shirley B.

    Condolences on your loss. Some people have such a positive influence in your life, in more ways than one. The way you describe it, Dean Porter was one of these people in your life. In my experience, those are the people you will always remember with affection (and perhaps with gratitude). You were blessed to have Dean around when you were growing up.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Shirley – we were fortunate that the Porters moved in next door all those years ago,

  11. J P Avatar

    This was heartwarming to read. It reminded me of some long ago family friends who made deep impressions on me. But none of those parental friendships were as long and as deep as the connections between your family and Dean’s. Deepest sympathies for your loss.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks my friend. It was an incredible, enduring friendship.

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