I found an article about Dr. Jenny Lind Porter’s former Texas home at 1715 Summit View Place, published in the June 30, 2016 issue of the on line version of the Austin Monitor, written by Elizabeth Pagano. She was my English Professor when I was an undergraduate in the mid-1970s at what was then Huston-Tillotson College (now Huston-Tillotson University) in Austin. Recently I was contacted by a supporter of the effort to have the old house registered as a Historic Landmark. The meeting for public comment about the issue is scheduled for July 25, 2016.
I sent an email message to Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky. I could not help remarking that every time I think I’m about to lay the memory of Dr. Porter to rest finally, something happens to trigger my wonder about whether or not she’s alive and, I hope, well.
I still don’t know.
Looking at photos of the old place, which she has moved away from to who knows where, I was struck by my memory of the oft-quoted line from Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias:
“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Mr. Sadowsky replied to my message with remarks similar to that quoted in Pagano’s article. I was intrigued to learn that Dr. Porter herself might have requested demolition of the house. That was just last year, so it means she was alive then. I’m not surprised that some doubt she would have requested demolition of her home.
And the mystery goes on, endlessly. She has been a ghost, haunting me for decades now. I point-blank asked Mr. Sadowsky whether she’s alive or dead–no reply. It fits. Ghosts are more often sensed than seen. And that has been my experience with Dr. Porter. I suspect it’s just possible that no one ever tells me anything about her existence or non-existence because they want to spare me the sorrow of what might be a living tragedy somewhere in between life and death, although I see them every day.
Maybe they know better than I about my ability to withstand that sorrow and to accept it.
I remember thinking something like that a few years ago when a couple of her other students contacted me about her, and their quest to find and finally thank her for all she’d done for them as their teacher. I was ambivalent about the project and inwardly thought it best to simply remember her as she was. Memories can be so much more bearable and cherishable than ghosts.
But we, as her students, persisted. I found her a couple of years ago through the former President of the Austin Poets Society, Elzy Cogswell, who informed me Dr. Porter was “still active and brilliant.” I still have the email message and just noticed that Elzy listed her address as 51 Summit View Place, which is not locatable on Google Maps.
Incredibly, the mystery just deepened. Of course, now I see why she might not have replied to my letter:
“Dear Dr. Porter,
This is a thank-you letter to convey my appreciation for you as my teacher at Huston-Tillotson College (H-TC) in Austin, Texas in the mid-1970s.
I’m sure you’ve received thousands of such letters. I’m honored just to be among the legion of those who have the priceless opportunity to thank someone who influenced the course of their lives.
I’ve been a consulting psychiatrist at The University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in Iowa City, Iowa for going on eighteen years. I co-edited a handbook with a former department chair. The title is “Psychosomatic Medicine: An Introduction to Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry.” It was published in 2010 by Cambridge University Press.
I’m also a blogger and have written about you on my blog, “The Practical Psychosomaticist.”
A couple of other former students of yours commented on one of my posts praising you and wondered how they might contact you to express their gratitude for you as a teacher, mentor, guide and more.
You taught the Honors English and Literature class to Karen J. Massey at Texas Lutheran College (TLC) in Seguin, Texas in 1966-1970. Karen was honored to have you as her teacher. She was an elementary teacher major with specialization in English. Karen is proud of your arranging to have W. H. Auden visit and speak at TLC.
You taught Darlynna Morris Rush at WTSU (I believe this stands for West Texas State University) in the 1960s. She wrote that you were “…the most influential person and helped shape who I became, both as a person, and as an educator.” Darlynna and I first connected in September of 2011 after I wrote an enthusiastic online review of your book, “The Lantern of Diogenes and Other Poems” at Amazon.com.
I’ve shared your contact information with them, which the Austin Poetry Society sent me in response to my inquiry about you after I discovered that you’re the honoree for the Jenny Lind Porter Scholarship.
One of my blog posts, entitled “Nearly Naked Admiration,” would make this letter too long, but it’s probably the best way for me to express my gratitude to you. It’s available on my blog site online, but you may not have access to the internet. I mention the H-TC faculty talent show in which your act brought down the house. Maybe just a few excerpts:
Huston-Tillotson professors held an annual talent show—given by the professors. I remember Dr. Porter’s act, vividly. Wearing a lovely gown, she gracefully stepped on to the stage of the King-Seabrook Chapel to read from a volume of classical poetry. She had a beautiful voice. And even then, she was lovely in—other ways. As she read, articles of clothing seemed to drift away. It’s funny how your mind can block recognition of reality, which tends to be very well draped; that is, until it is nearly naked.
The longer Dr. Porter read her poetry, the less gown seemed to be evident, and the more creamy white flesh became visible. The unveiling of a white woman in front of an audience filled with black males even in the 1970s produced nearly naked amazement.
A verse would end. A shawl would drop. A brilliant metaphor would fall gently on my ears—followed by a brightly sequined skirt dropping noiselessly to the floor. Meter by meter, the miraculously iambic conjugated with the spectacularly revelatory, promising the celestial by successive approximations while delivering the earthly through sartorial regressions until she was—nearly naked. The strip tease poetry reading brought the house down. Sorry, I don’t recall which poem she read.
Dr. Porter was, in fact, very supportive of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity long before it was cool. The values she espoused and cultivated in the 1970s were…:
Respect: She commanded respect in her classroom and from her colleagues, even when doing a strip tease down to nearly naked while reciting classical poetry.
Excellence: She inspired excellence in every student, without which Habari Gani would not have been created or published.
Collaboration: She was the exemplar of collaboration across the disciplines of humanities and science and across cultures because she could listen deeply and made sure she understood what others meant before she spoke.
Integrity: She had enough integrity as a scholar and a leader among women to stand nearly naked before a black audience in a church in the 1970s, which won both our hearts and our minds.
Stewardship: She held in stewardship classical ideas and philosophy that will forever stand the test of time about honor, diligence, acceptance, and wisdom, the last of which, after all, means skill in living.
She was tenacious and practical in her pursuit of all we know and all we need to know about truth and beauty. She taught me to be tenacious and practical in my own way.
At the time I wrote that essay, I didn’t know whether you were alive or dead. I am grateful for the chance to thank you while you are still in the world. Thank you.”
I hadn’t found her, after all. It reminded me of the time she invited me to her house to discuss Rosicrucianism (of which she was a devotee and made a valiant though futile attempt to teach me about it) when I was either a freshman or sophomore at Huston-Tillotson College. She gave me adequate directions, but I couldn’t find it. Cryptically, she hinted that she’d somehow influenced in some mysterious way my getting lost.
After all, her former house is a relic, probably beyond repair, no doubt, as Sadowsky implies. I look on the ruin, and despair. Perhaps it would be better to demolish the “half sunk” and “shattered” monument and just remember it as it was. I’m afraid that will be the outcome of the July 25th public hearing.
But as a teacher who influenced my own ambition to teach, as an artist, spiritualist, humanist, and mysterious ghost following me all through my days, I will never forget Dr. Jenny Lind Porter.