Remembrance of Jenny Lind Porter on Bluebonnet Hill

I got to thinking of another spring wildflower called the Bluebonnet (Lupinus), which is common in Texas. Huston-Tillotson University was built on a place called Bluebonnet Hill in East Austin. I was a student there for a couple of years way back in my distant past and, every few years, I hear something about my favorite teacher, Dr. Jenny Lind Porter.

Just about a day ago, a past Co-President of the Austin Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) asked me for help reconnecting with Dr. Porter in anticipation of an upcoming AAUW meeting in May. The plan is to honor the 15 members who are in their 90’s who are still mostly active.

Dr. Porter is among the current Hall of Fame members of the AAUW and she was author and Professor of English at Huston Tillotson. She was named Poet Laureate of Texas in 1964 by then-Texas Governor John Connally. I noticed that new submissions for nominations to the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame just closed last Friday on April 27, 2018.

As I prepare for retirement by trying on new hobbies and reconnecting with old ones, I still sometimes think of Dr. Porter. Every time I hear from someone about her, I think it will be the last. However, it seems like every couple of years or so I get a message from someone trying to reconnect with her. It’s ironic since I’m not an Austinite and and I have not seen nor spoken with her since I left Huston-Tillotson so many years ago.

As Sena and I took a walk on the Clear Creek Trail, I snapped my usual amateurish pictures, one of them a wildflower I think was a Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). Experts out there will have to pass judgment and I would appreciate any guidance–if you can make out anything recognizable from my fuzzy picture. I compared it to an image from an Iowa website.

The Spring Beauty is not as showy as the Bluebonnet, but I like its delicacy and there is something humble about it. Experts in Illinois say it even has little underground tubers that you can eat like potatoes–and claim another name for the plant is the “fairy spud.” I think the Bluebonnet is part of the pea family, although all parts of the flower, including pods and seeds, are very toxic.

That’s not meant to be a criticism of Austin or Texas and the only Spring Beauty that made me return to Iowa from Texas without taking a degree from Huston-Tillotson was my wife, Sena. I’ll never know what might have happened to me had I remained in Austin.

In fact, the Bluebonnet is culturally important in Texas. It’s against the law to destroy them, although picking them is fine. And there is an interesting myth about it. During a long drought, a little Native American girl called She-Who-Is-Alone was the only person in the tribe who answered the Chief’s call for volunteers to sacrifice a cherished personal possession to the Great Spirits to appease them and end the drought. She-Who-Is-Alone gave her favorite doll, a gift from her parents. The Great Spirits were pleased and brought rain–from which sprang a great field of beautiful Bluebonnets.

Dr. Porter was a gifted teacher who taught students, among other things, about myths from a different time and culture, that of the Greeks. She assigned as the text the book Mythology by Edith Hamilton. Dr. Porter spoke highly of Edith Hamilton, who regarded the high point of her life a 1957 ceremony in which King Paul of Greece named her an honorary citizen of Athens. The high point of my college career was Dr. Porter’s instruction in that place on Bluebonnet Hill, as it was for many students. Dr. Porter married rather late in life and I hope she was not alone after her husband’s death.

As we walked the trail, I thought about the last time I heard about Dr. Porter. It was almost a couple of years ago when the Austin Historic Landmark Commission broadcast public meetings airing the sometimes spirited debates about the proposal to demolish her house on 1715 Summit View Place in the Old Enfield area. Discussants mentioned her having dementia and a legal guardian.

It stung more than a little bit. On the other hand, I’m getting to the age now when I anticipate that sort of thing happening to me in a future that seems not so far off. Like the woodpecker we saw on our walk, I would like to hide my head in a tree sometimes when I think that I’ve worked very hard for more than a couple of decades to retire and my life span may end up being only a couple of decades.

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I sometimes wonder if Dr. Porter sacrificed too much. Her house, which she called Casa Magni, has no doubt been demolished and another house erected in its place. I don’t know what became of the remembrance project for Dr. Porter that the project designer planned. Anyway, I have my own remembrance.

The Lantern of Diogenes

All maturation has a root in quest.

How long thy wick has burned, Diogenes!

I see thy lantern bobbing in unrest

When others sit with babes upon their knees

Unconscious of the twilight or the storm,

Along the streets of Athens, glimmering strange,

Thine eyes upon the one thing keeps thee warm

In all this world of tempest and of change.

Along the pavestones of Florentian town

I see the shadows cower at thy flare,

In Rome and Paris, in an Oxford gown,

Men’s laughter could not shake the anxious care

Which had preserved thy lantern. May it be

That something of thy spirit burns in me!–The Lantern of Diogenes and Other Poems by Jenny Lind Porter