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