WESLEY CHAPEL — Friends and family crowded into an auditorium on the college campus that bears his name to honor the legacy of Don Porter, who helped transform Wiregrass Ranch into the economic engine of Pasco County.
Porter, who died July 1 at age 73, was known as a visionary leader for stewardship of the family ranch, which is now home to one of the Tampa Bay region’s most popular shopping malls, a state-of-the-art hospital, a high school and the namesake Porter Campus of Pasco Hernando State College.
Porter’s son, J.D. Porter, said that’s only part of his father’s legacy.
“We’ve had to do enough interviews and there’s a lot of great stories in the paper about what he’s left — the tangible things we can all see: the state college, the hospital, the sports complex, the Shops at Wiregrass,” Porter said. “All those things... and they probably meant the least to him. What meant the most to him was his family and leaving a legacy through us.”
Daughter Quinn Miller said her dad was “tough as nails and demanded excellence in everything we did.” But he also loved his wife and kids unconditionally. “He was my rock.”
Long before he was a millionaire developer and philanthropist, Don Porter was the eldest of three boys growing up on the family ranch and learning to driver a tractor at age 6. He confided to his cousin, Mike Gramling, that he had nightmares about being trampled by the cattle while he tossed them their food pellets.
The family lived in a house on State Road 54. It was an old moonshiners’ cabin, and they lived without electricity for the first three years. “His mother cooked dinner every night on a 1-canister Coleman camp stove,” Gramling said.
He and his two brothers were educated in a one-room school house, and he became such an avid reader he started high school a year early.
At Pasco High School, he was the star pitcher whose curveball was so devastating he once struck out 20 of the 21 batters he faced. He earned a baseball scholarship to the University of Mississippi, where he became an All-American and conference champion and later played professionally.
He never owned a store-bought shirt until he left for college — at age 16. Before that day, every shirt he ever had worn was hand sewn by his mother using material from old flour sacks.
Family friend Will Roberts said that by the 1980s Porter had developed his own fashion sense, which became a bit of a legend in still-rural Wesley Chapel. “He had more sweaters than Bill Cosby,” he said. “One of the earliest memories I have of Don was him coaching third base in 1988 in San Ann Little League. He was standing on third, wearing a sweater and black leather pants.”
Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford said the two became friends despite Porter’s disdain for politicians. Their shared love and sense of community drew them to each other. Weatherford said he viewed Porter as “a quiet giant.”
“I never knew anybody who could speak less and say more than Don Porter,” he said. About five years ago, he received a beautifully-wrapped Christmas gift from Porter. As he learned on Saturday, it was the ultimate sign of respect.
“I never understood why he got me a sweater, so thanks for unraveling that mystery,” Weatherford said.
Porter’s personal library was even more voluminous than his sweater collection, according to close friend Doug Manson. He read everything from sonnets to science fiction, and he loaned them to his friends.
“For 10 years, almost every book I read was either loaned to me or recommended to me by Don Porter,” Manson said. “He lived what he spoke. He taught me that being a man is being passionate and being compassionate.”