Wednesday, Oct 01, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Don Porter, All-American visionary

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Don Porter had a voice like barbed wire being dragged through a barrel of river gravel, and a John Wayne squint that always seemed to be taking in the horizon.

The combination created distinctly American results. His voice was a rumble, like distant thunder over a prairie. And that gaze seemed to seek the thunder’s source. Yonder, in the distance. After all, out there is where the future lay, and Don Porter always had definite ideas about the future. How he would shape it. What it would look like when he was finished. Why it was important, and why it would be welcomed.

It is well to remember, on this 238th anniversary of our declaration of independence from English tyranny, that this is America in a nutshell. From the moment of the country’s birth straight through to today, America’s highest ideal was that it would be a nation where imagination was encouraged, rewarded and fulfilled. This, above all, is liberty unleashed.

Don Porter, who died Tuesday at the age of 73, lived that ideal.

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The first son of James Porter, a legend whose cussed nature matched the tough grass — the wiregrass — that carpeted his sprawling central Pasco County ranch, eventually affixing itself to the rancher, his ranch and a thriving regional mall, Don Porter saw beyond cattle and citrus and wide open spaces to rooftops and parkland; beyond that to a mall that wouldn’t simply sell stuff, but would be a place where people would gather and linger, even if they didn’t spend a dime; beyond that, even, to a cutting-edge hospital and places of education: public schools and a state college campus.

And finally, still in the rarified concept and financing stage, the project that brings Don Porter full circle: Acreage donated for the creation of a massive baseball mecca, one designed to lure amateur tournaments year-round, but also equipped to handle the spring training demands of a Major League Baseball team. This latest — one hesitates to call it the last — then, is like nothing quite so much as Don Porter’s Walt Disney moment.

A youth and collegiate baseball star who knocked around for a while in the Houston organization on either side of a hitch in the Army, Porter plainly never quite shook his affinity for diamond dust. Before Blue Marble’s James Talton came along with his ramped-up, $34 million plan, the Porters had pushed, but finally abandoned, a fields-of-dreams project of their own.

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Still, in the America launched by Thomas Jefferson’s exquisite expression of liberty, there’s more than one way to achieve a vision. Assuming it comes to fruition, all it will lack is Don Porter tossing the first ceremonial pitch, just as Disney did not survive to cut the ribbon on the Magic Kingdom. The truth of a great idea, however, is that once set into motion, it does not perish with its originator. Others can be counted on to carry it to completion.

Here, then, is the legacy of a local legend, a man of foresight who took the opportunity handed down from a famously flinty father who saw wilderness land and, on the theory that they weren’t making more, bought plenty of it. With care, skill and a respect for what his dad had started, Don Porter helped make central Pasco the place it is today: A regional hub that represents home, hope and happiness to thousands, as well as a center of wealth- and knowledge-building that provides reliable jobs and a sense of worth along with a sense of place and belonging.

All that and, every twilight or dawn, you’re still liable to run across wild turkey, deer, hogs, bobcats, owls and who knows what else, descendants of the untamed creatures that were there when the first Porter made a track in the wiregrass. Like his dad, Don Porter, American, understood the value of preserving open spaces, and that’s his legacy, too, one entrusted to his first born, J.D., who, luckily, carries the Porters’ gift for squinting to the horizon, and seeing what lies beyond.

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