When President Roger Voskuyl heard about William Porter’s “problem,” he wished more people shared a similar concern.
“I’ve been watching you people; you are doing a fine piece of work with these young people,” Porter told the Westmont president in 1960. “I believe in Christian education and want to continue to support it. Because of what God has done for me, I want to put a building on your campus. My problem is: what should it be?”
President Voskuyl suggested a fine arts facility, an idea that immediately appealed to Porter. “Mrs. Porter is very much interested in art and music, and it is to carry her name,” he replied. He gave nearly $200,000 for the project, the largest single gift to date. The new facility included an auditorium, three studio-classrooms for music and art, three music-teaching studios, and three offices.
High school sweethearts who graduated from Santa Barbara High, William and Ellen Bird Porter were accomplished people who were deeply involved in the local community. President Voskuyl first met Porter when the two served together on the United Way board.
Mrs. Porter began singing with the Children’s Festival Chorus of 1,000 Voices at the age of six, and throughout her life displayed her lovely contralto voice as a soloist and member of quartets and other choral groups. She was also a talented artist and studied with De Witt and Douglas Parshall and Carl Oscar Borg. Born in New Jersey, she lived in New York City until her family moved to Santa Barbara.
Like his wife, Porter came to Santa Barbara with his parents. He was born in Brazil and had lived in Chicago and San Francisco.
An honors student active in athletics, drama, and debate during his high school career, Porter studied law at Stanford University where he set the state record for the mile run and competed with the debating team.
During World War I, Porter joined the Navy and served as an ensign. He then began working in the title insurance field and developed the certificate of title method still used today. For 23 years he led Security Title Insurance Company as president before becoming chairman of the board for seven years.
Porter loved sports and played tennis, handball, and golf. He also rode horses and raced a 40-foot sloop.
His generosity led him to support a number of organizations, including the Boy Scouts, the YMCA, and First Presbyterian Church. He belonged to many Santa Barbara clubs and groups.
Porter explained his reasons for supporting Westmont in a letter to President Voskuyl: “My purpose in making this gift is two-fold. First, I feel that the training of Christian leaders is of paramount importance if this nation is to survive and if we are to exert the needed Christian influence in the world. I recognize in Westmont College an institution of high Christian ideals led by able Christian men and women with a program that will produce this kind of intellectual and spiritual leaders.
“Secondly, I wish to establish a living memorial to my life partner who shares my concern and my objective outlined above. This particular building seems appropriate because of her lifelong interest in art and music.”
After Porter died in 1964, his widow paid tribute to him by giving money for the William Stratton Porter Center. Originally the facility housed the health center and featured offices for the doctor and nurse, two day-patient rooms, a conference room, and five offices for student counseling and placement.
The Porters also funded the new entrance to campus, outdoor lighting, scholar- ships, and the estate planning program.
—Research by History Professor Emeritus Paul Wilt