Porterfield the Last
Bill Long 10/11/05
Summing Up a Life
Porterfield retired from TCU in 1966 but continued teaching sporadically until his death at 82 in 1979. He lost his wife of fifty years shortly after retirement, but married again within two years. Most striking to those who knew him is that he kept learning and teaching right until the end, ironically teaching a course on gerontology a few months before he died. He had never taught that subject previously but said with his characteristic good humor that what he couldn't pick up about it in books he would supply with his own experience. This essay provides summative insight into Porterfield, gained first from a commencement address he gave and then from recollections from two who knew him well.
A Commencement Address
Sometimes you learn most about an accomplished scholar not by reading his/her published works but through remarks made to a popular audience. In addressing his grandson Donald S. Willis' graduation class in 1964 in East Texas, Porterfield gave his "formula" for life as L3I4F3E. This was supposed to be a sort of "chemical" formula for success, and it indicated that three words beginning with L, four with I, three with F and then one with E need to be appropriated if one is to live well. What were they? Porterfield says the first element, L, stands for love but there were three electrons in the orbital path of love: love of self, love of work, and love of others. You get love by giving it to others and without love you are at best possessed of only a right eye or a left ear, of no more than two teeth in the wrong places.
The three "L's" join with the four "I's" of identity; integrity; ideals and imagination. These four give the person power to hold meaningful values in life. Your identity consists in knowing who you are in relation with others with whom you come in contact. "You are never anyone by yourself alone...you always refer to the groups to which you belong." Ideals are what you stand for, and your integrity is how well you stand for those ideals. Imagination is the fourth "atom" in the element of the "I." Then follows a very "Porterfieldian" statement: "it (imagination) includes your ability to get into the next man's skin; to imagine yourself in the other man's place so as to understand him."
The third element, "F3," is for faith in God, in oneself and in others. "These three atoms of faith share their electrons with love; and love shares equally all its satellites with these three atoms of faith." The "I" element, the ego, also cannot exist without these. Finally, the fourth element, "E," though it could stand for many excellent things, signifies the "Eternal." "Only the sense of the eternal can keep from being over impressed with surface appearances when the going gets rough. Everybody has got to face trouble sometime in life--deep trouble. When it happens, one can survive only with a sense of the Eternal." So Porterfield exhorts the young people to adopt a creed he himself no doubt practiced.
Porterfield the Generalist
In his own assessment of Porterfield, Cain emphasizes the dual nature of the man as a scientist and a humanist. These two designations are, no doubt, correct, and nicely capture why he both sought a data-driven practice but also one in which his "grasp exceeded his reach." But rather than simply resting on these two terms, apt as they are, it might be helpful to say that Porterfield was a generalist in the best sense of the term: a man who saw connections between all areas of life and sociology and who lived in the strength of those connections. But he lived in a time in which the profession of sociology was gradually only recognizing the specialists, the hard-core empiricists (or theoreticians) who focused their energies on one or two problems. Porterfield wouldn't (or couldn't) do that. He believed deeply that social science was a means of achieving social betterment in a number of areas, from juvenile delinquency to aging to medical sociology to understanding crime or suicide.
His daughter's reminiscences capture the extent of his professional contributions: (1) his association with the Potishman Fund which was the forerunner of TCU Press; (2) the inspirational quality of his teaching and the remarkable success of his students in sociology, theology and other fields; (3) his numerous scholarly articles and books; (4) his creative genius and skill in establishing a new journal which now is one of the leading journals in medical sociology; (5) his service as an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ Church; (6) his participation in community service projects; (7) the acclaim he garnered for TCU through his work. In addition, many fond reminscences of family members bear witness to the good life of a good man.
A Final Word--From a Former Student
One of Porterfield's enduring legacies was having inspired so many young people to continue their studies in sociology and, ultimately, to become sociologists themselves. His most famous student, Professor Jack P. Gibbs, emeritus professor from Vanderbilt, wrote at length to Leonard Cain about the contributions of Porterfield (237-240). He first mentions that Porterfield was a powerful presence for so many students who had themselves been "country bumpkins." He inspired them; instructed them; encouraged them; gave them an example of how a disciplined attention to scholarship and learning could lead to success in their careers.
But Gibbs probes further to try to understand what he calls the "transformational" ability of Porterfield. He says:
"I am driven to this conclusion: Dr. Porterfield was devoted to ideas, and many of his students came to share that devotion...Porterfield was the agent who introduced them to worlds largely alien to their experience--the intellectual, scholarly, and scientific....However, say what you will, an academician's greatest gift is his/her ability to inculcate a respect for ideas; and Porterfield's talent along that line cannot be exaggerated" (238)...
"The suggestion is not that Porterfield should be remembered as one of sociology's great theorists...For that matter, he is best identified as a 'generalist,' in that his interests and talents transcended the formulation of theories..." (239).
However, as Gibbs recognized, such a one would not be honored sufficiently for his contributions to sociology as such a generalist.
So, there you have it. Leonard has given us an informative, detailed, varied meal for a biography of his teacher. The personal stories of people that knew him, combined with analysis of his ideas that Cain brings, gives a more balanced view of the man than either alone could have provided. We have a large man in these pages, whom dozens were proud to call teacher, and whom many, including myself, now admire, though from afar.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long