Bill Porterfield retires


Bill PorterfieldIf the weather is nice, you'll likely see Bill Porterfield walking along Via Sacra from his home to Gilmer Hall. If the weather is very nice, he'll be driving his convertible 1959 Corvette.

Not many people at Hampden-Sydney have seen as many changes as Bill Porterfield (seen at right as he was during the early 1970s). The inorganic chemistry professor came to the College in 1964-although he likes to point out that he signed a contract in August of 1963, but the pay was so low that he had to stay at his job at the Alleghany Ballistics Lab to save enough money to make the move. When he arrived, academic majors were only seven years old and Hundley Stadium had not been built. Neither had Gilmer Hall-the sciences were still taught in Bagby. The new library was Eggleston Hall, then only half the size it is now.

Dr. William Wendell Porterfield's 48-year full-time teaching career is topped only by that of J. H. Curry Winston 1894, who taught chemistry from 1899 to 1949. (Porter­field says the College didn't have a retirement plan in those days, so that Winston-for whom Winston Hall is named-could not afford to retire.) Many living alumni likely believe that Dr. Graves H. Thompson 1927 taught for more than 50 years; though his career lasted from 1939 to 1993, he retired from full-time teaching in 1977.

The faculty of the early 1960s was quite different from the current faculty. There were some academically-progressive professors, including the brash and aggressive chemistry professor Tyler Miller, the son of then-James Madison College President G. Tyler Miller.

Porterfield, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina in 1962, recalls, "The rest of the faculty at that time had been here since before World War II-or had come here right after-and were set in a very traditional curriculum. The difference between the BA and BS was that for a BA you had to take a modern language and an ancient language-two years of each. For a BS you had to take only two years of a single language and a full year of each of the three introductory sciences.

"The faculty were incredibly traditional about the liberal arts. Almost all of them were teaching courses that could have been taught in the 1890s, not that they didn't have any newer material-these were people who were plenty smart-but they were teaching courses the way they were taught in the 1890s, except for a few razzle-dazzle teachers who had been filtered out by the [public] school closing."

"I'm really struck by what has not changed. The curriculum has changed enormously, ... the faculty is completely different. But the student body is almost exactly like it was when I came ... a great bunch of young men to work with."

Retiring Professor of Chemistry

Tyler Miller, who was vocally progressive, was soon pressured by conservative colleagues and townspeople to leave in 1966. It wasn't until 1968, when the department grew by two professors, including Dr. Herbert J. Sipe, Jr., to a total of four, that it could run advanced laboratory classes the way they are done today-a system of which Porterfield has always been a strong proponent and for which he has written a widely-used textbook.

"I'm really struck by what has not changed," notes Porterfield. "I mean, the curriculum has changed enormously: the core [requirement] has gone down from 96 hours to 50-ish. And AP [Advanced Placement] is a lot more common than it used to be, which means the bottom edge of the distributive requirements tends to get AP credit so students never really take those courses here. There is much more emphasis on majors ... and of course the faculty is completely different.

"But the student body is almost exactly like it was here when I came-okay, so we have some minority students now. The students are all polite and medium-level interested. This is not the MIT-level of fighting for every morsel of fact, but they don't flake off either. You get a decent level of effort in the classroom. What I have seen for 49 years is students making a reasonable level of effort. You get a couple of screw-ups in every class, but the density of screw-ups now is neither higher nor lower than it was in 1966. I don't have a problem with this. This is a great bunch of young men to work with."

Unlike many of the buildings at Hampden-Sydney, for the people of the College change is inevitable. Dr. Porterfield ended his 20-something-year run of high-powered and highly orchestrated July 4th fireworks displays two years ago. Essential tremor in his hands makes grading papers nearly impossible. After a successful career teaching generations of young scientists, Bill Porterfield is stepping aside.

"I really shouldn't [be teaching] any more; is what it comes down to, and it's too bad, because this has been a fun period. I would like to keep on teaching chemistry; I would like to keep on teaching Western Culture. It just doesn't work very well."

For those who come back looking for Dr. Porterfield, you'll likely find him. After decades of walking down Via Sacra to work every day, serving for 20 years on the County Planning Commission, and attending literally hundreds of Tiger football and basketball games, he and his wife Dorothy have no plans to move away. On warm summer days, they may even go for a ride in his Corvette.