I met Dr. Jenny Lind Porter Scott, one of my favorite teachers, in the mid-1970s during my first two years of college at what was then called Huston-Tillotson College (now Huston-Tillotson University or HTU). It’s one of America’s historically black colleges. I didn’t graduate from there, instead transferring credit to Iowa State University and taking a degree from there which eventually led to my graduating from the University of Iowa College of Medicine.
I’m sure there are no records of my attendance at HTU. I was recruited by Dr. Hector Grant, a professor of religious studies and philosophy who was traveling around the country and giving presentations to various church organizations to garner financial support for the college. I was awarded a $1,000 tuition grant under the auspices of the 17/76 Achievement Fund of the United Church of Christ.
I have neither degree nor transcripts from HTU. But I have my memories, and one of the most special memories is of Dr. Porter. One of the main reasons for today’s post is my finding her obituary on the web this morning. She died at the age of 93 in July of this year. I saw two obituaries, one apparently written by the funeral home on the Texas State Cemetery web site and the other appears in the Austin American Statesman.
Both list her many achievements as an educator, a leader among women, and a gifted writer. They also cite what might seem to be a minor detail to anyone but me and other students who knew her in the 1970s, which is that she “…established a Creative Writing program at Huston-Tillotson University…”
One of the products of that program was Habari Gani, a poetry anthology created and supported by the HTU student government and sponsored by Dr. Porter. “Habari Gani” is Swahili, which means “What’s going on?”
There was a poetry contest which preceded the publishing of Habari Gani. Mine didn’t make the cut and I left the school before I could get a copy of the anthology. Luckily, after a short web search, I was able to connect with the HTU librarian, who was kind enough to send me a digital copy in 2016. I like the introductory poem:
“Let your hum be the dream
Of an understanding universe…
Let your hum be a perfect
Utopia of love”
Around that same time and in previous years, I would sometimes hear about Dr. Porter. Just when I had forgotten her, it would seem like somebody would send me a message about her. That began around 2011 when I left the one and only review on Amazon about one of her books of poetry, The Lantern of Diogenes and Other Poems, first published in 1954. It’s the only one I have. I was never able to connect with her after I left HTU.
Sadly, in 2016, I found out that the City of Austin, Texas was proposing to demolish her house. I watched the video-recorded public proceedings of the city council meetings involving the Austin Historic Landmark Commission. Those who knew Dr. Porter wanted to preserve the house as an example of the work done by a famous local architect (which they believed they could verify) and to honor her stature in literature and education. The meetings were painful to watch. I gathered that Dr. Porter’s house had fallen into disrepair and little could be done to preserve it. She had also developed a dementing illness which impaired her ability to manage her own affairs. Her husband had died several years earlier and it sounded like a decision-maker had been appointed to help her.
I had email messages from the Historic Preservation Officer and the local architect who planned to build a house with similar architectural style for a client. The plan included a micro free library, a small replica of the original house at the corner of the lot, and other items. The project was to begin about 8 months after demolition and I’ve not heard anything since. A Google Map search dated March 2019 shows a weed-covered empty lot at 1715 Summit View Place. There are hard facts of life I would rather forget sometimes. But I keep a few memories.
What I remember most vividly is her live poetry reading performance at the annual Faculty Talent Show on campus. It was held in the Agard-Lovinggood Auditorium (now a campus administration building).
Her act brought down the house because it was a strip tease. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing salacious about it. It was absolutely typical for her legendary sense of humor and style. Of course, it was the ‘70s. Too bad I didn’t have a camera.
Dr. Porter loved her students. We believed in her courage, kindness, and strict attention to the sense and structure of English literature and language. My poem didn’t make it into Habari Gani for any other reason other than it was bad poetry. The important thing was—our lives mattered a great deal to her. She tried to teach me about Rosicrucianism, but it was over my head. The lead poem from her book is pretty down to earth.
The Lantern of Diogenes
by Jenny Lind Porter
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!