Ben Porter and William Porter

Recorded December 26, 2019 Archived December 26, 2019 40:21 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: chi003216


Ben Porter (43) talks to his father, William "Bill" Porter (68), about growing up in rural Iowa, his love of fishing, and his career as a professor of wildlife sciences.

Subject Log / Time Code

Bill talk about growing up in Cedar Falls, Iowa and the Porter Camera Store.
Bill recalls his time working at his dad's camera store and working with his sisters. He credits his time at the store as foundational for learning how to listen and deliver on a customer's needs.
Bill talks about his lifelong love of fishing. Bill talks about why fishing has been so important to him and his family.
Bill talks about his decision to go the University of Northern Iowa.
Bill goes to the University of Minnesota for grad school and eventually researches the possibility of returning turkey to the Midwest.
Ben asks Bill why hunting has declined so much.
Bill recalls his time running a research station New York.
Bill reflects on the milestones in his career.
Bill tells Ben why he decided to settle the family in a rural spot.
Bill talks about his fascination with science-fiction.


  • Ben Porter
  • William Porter

Recording Locations

Chicago Cultural Center

Venue / Recording Kit


StoryCorps uses Google Cloud Speech-to-Text and Natural Language API to provide machine-generated transcripts. Transcripts have not been checked for accuracy and may contain errors. Learn more about our FAQs through our Help Center or do not hesitate to get in touch with us if you have any questions.

00:12 Thumbs up already

00:17 So, my name is Bill Porter. I'm 68 years old today is the 26th of December 2019. We are in Chicago. I am talking with my younger son, Ben.

00:33 And I'm Ben Porter 43 years old December 26th, and we're here at the store core booth in Chicago interviewing. My dad and the dad I wanted to start.

00:48 I with your childhood and where you grew up. Can you talk about where you grew up? I grew up in Iowa in Eastern Iowa is you know lived on the outskirts of town and that proved to be a wonderful place to grow up because I had a river and Ravines and farmland and wood lights to Rome across and as I got older, I roamed farther and farther and went to small schools and had a wonderful experience with those schools because I could ride my bike to them.

01:33 And ended up leaving there after college. Do you want to say the name of the town in Iowa? Was there tigers was there a was there a waterfall in Cedar Falls? There was a Rapids area and

01:58 And sometime in the earliest early 20th century. They had built a dam to create a little deeper water for boating mostly recreational boating. And of course, it created a little bit of a Falls but no Cedar Falls was on the Cedar River but there wasn't much of a false choice just it sounded nicer if it had a ring to it. Ford Falls. Yeah, and who were your parents? My parents were Daryl Porter and Barbara Porter Voorhees. My father came from Cedar Falls grew up in Cedar Falls. My mother grew up out east in New Jersey came to Cedar Falls to go to college at the then Iowa State Teachers College met my father and stayed forever and they had your friends.

02:57 Add a camera store. How did that come about? Yes, that was a big part of our life. My father when he returned from World War II took over operation of a camera and photo finishing store place where you would bring your film have it developed to have prints made from the negatives and you could buy camera equipment and it was a small very small mom-and-pop operation for many many years and then As I Grew Older my father began expanding into the mail-order business. He was one of the First Merchants to recognize that mail order was a potential lucrative opportunity for business particularly if you could ship things quickly,

03:57 And so if you think about Amazon today and you think about L.L.Bean today Porter's camera store was the Forerunner of a lot of that that fast shipping. In fact, the motto of Porter's camera store was we ship quick and so my father developed at in partnership with a really bright guy a guy who had been teaching math in high school came along and it turned out to be the combination of my father in this other gentleman turned out to be amazing partnership because they had very complementary skills and they develop the business into a really a really lucrative Enterprise as I grew up.

04:54 I remember.

04:57 Grandpa would give me stamps from all over the world They too had a lot of orders from Japan and Hong Kong and China. Did you work in a you have to work in the camera store? Right and sales? Yes. I had two sisters younger than me. And we all worked in the camera store as we grew up we started.

05:22 In the shipping Department packing boxes or stocking shelves or picking orders and As We Grew Older we learned how to work retail probably the most important one of the most important lessons. I learned in my life. I learned from the people that I worked with in retail and that was how to listen carefully to a customer how to resonate back to them the message that they were telling you and show them a product that fit their particular need not selling them on the product but helping them understand how this product would fit their needs and what I found was that lesson translated into all sorts of dimensions in life.

06:19 Did you enjoy selling in the store? I did that was probably the the aspect of working at the store that gave me the greatest pleasure was working with with customers listening to them showing them how the different products we had worked and how they might they might fit for them. But it was also a job that I found to be.

06:51 Not very stimulating. I remember that many Saturday afternoons the hours between 3 and 5:30 when we closed seemed to stretch interminably. Those were long hours.

07:07 So, what did you look like as a kid if you could describe yourself?

07:12 I always that you're tall. You're very tall. Now. Are you a very tall child know I was short until effect that was among the shortest kids in my high school graduating class. I grew 4 to 6 in in the first two years of college. So between ages 18 and 20 is when I really grew and so all the years growing up. I was just a normal kid with curly hair and and probably kind of scruffy-looking because I enjoyed being outdoors and when I got into college, I became really tall very skinny kid and it took a long time to fill out.

07:58 I thought you always had those distinctive kind of horn-rimmed 60s glasses. I remember in those pictures. Is that is that just what everyone had or I remember getting glasses when I was in fourth grade and it was like the World opened up to me. I didn't realize what I wasn't able to see and I have lived with glasses ever since and I think they're among the the Great Inventions in mankind probably would not have survived. I might not have certainly couldn't have done many of the things that I do today without them.

08:40 So one thing we've had in our family for many generations is fishing and you know grandpa had this special cabin. Can you talk about how that came about?

08:52 Yeah, you know fishing runs, I think in our genetic code my grandfather was a very serious fisherman and lived in Iowa. And when you lived in Iowa and you were serious about fishing you went to Minnesota or you went to Canada to fish and my grandfather started.

09:21 That is the best I can tell started the family on those Journeys to Canada fishing. He was famous in the family because he caught a Big Muskie early in his life that won a an annual award in Ontario.

09:44 My father caught the bug for fishing and as early as 14 years old was organising trips with his friends to go up to Minnesota fishing. He wasn't old enough to drive but he befriended kids who were old enough to drive and who had cars and they went on camping trips into Minnesota and Canada and one of the dreams that my father had was to build a log cabin somewhere in Minnesota or Canada. And when he got back from World War II, he and his older brother and two of their friends agreed to partner in building a log cabin and they purchased a piece of land just north of International Falls, Minnesota in Canada to build this cabin and it took them about 18 months.

10:44 To build this cabin they were young and and just out of World War II they didn't have permanent jobs. They were going to college so they had Summers off and they literally cut the spruce and balsam trees took the bark off of them cut them to size put drinks in the end so they would fit together and they they they as a group of three or four guys built this Log Cabin that was probably about 30 x 40 ft in size and it became the vacation spot for my family for most of the years that I was growing up.

11:33 I remember going there.

11:35 And the mice had the run of the place and would Scamper over you while you were sleeping in there was no Plumbing or they was in the Outhouse. Did you enjoy going up there from the fishing was excellent? Yeah. I was a kid who loved the outdoors and generally could not get enough of it in the cabin was sort of Mecca. It was the perfect opportunity for a young boy. You could fish from the dock As I Grew Older I could take the boat out and fish along the shore near the cabin we fished for walleyes mostly in northern pike, but it was the cabin in the evening when the family gathered around under a

12:26 Under a Gas Lantern and we played board games and told stories and read books. And yeah, there were lots of mice and yes, there were lots of mosquitoes and yes those were annoying but relative to the opportunity to be in the Northwoods to be on a lake to be in a place where the wild life was so visible, you know growing up in Iowa. We didn't have a lot of wildlife that we could see there weren't any deer there weren't any turkeys there certainly weren't bald eagles and we went into Canada and we saw a deer and we saw a moose and we saw a bald eagles and it was just a fantastic experience for me growing up.

13:17 You you were a good student in high school and you had good grades and scores and probably could have gone far but you went to the local College University of Northern Iowa. Why did you stay so close to home for college? Yeah, that's kind of when I was pretty young one of the professors at this local colleges University of is now called University of Northern, Iowa.

13:53 Was looking for somebody to help him.

13:56 In the field during the summer collect fish because he taught a course in field. Zoologie and I was big enough to hold the other end of a big sane and we would go out seining fish and I realize that I enjoyed that and I liked this professor and so I got to know a little bit more about the college. I got to know a couple of the other professors and they were doing some of the kinds of things that I was interested in, but I was really interested in wildlife and there was nobody there who was doing

14:40 Wildlife the way I was reading about it in the magazines. There was a program though at Iowa State University about probably 90 miles away a bigger University but a place that was a little scary because it was at a distance and because it had a reputation as being a pretty academically challenging environment, but I was up for that and they had a wildlife program and so I signed up for it and I remember one day early in the summer getting a packet from them and here was my assignment for a dormitory room and here was the name of my roommate and here were all the courses that I was going to take over the next four years and in those four years I had to elective courses.

15:40 Everything else was prescribed for me and many of the courses were sequential courses. And so there were really no opportunities for much flexibility.

15:55 Well, I was a little independent then didn't really like that and I was pretty young and didn't have the self-assurance to go away to college to place that was known for its academic challenge.

16:17 And so I talk to these professors who I knew at University of Northern, Iowa about

16:25 Enrolling there and they encourage me.

16:29 And it turned out that was a really great move because by the time I was done there a grown-up I gained the self-confidence I needed to go other places. I done really well at that institution. I graduated at the top of my class in the department of biology. But also I was at the top of the class in the College of Natural Sciences and those that educational experience in that success allowed me to be competitive for graduate school and I ended up at the University of Minnesota, which was one of the top programs for wildlife at that time right there were

17:23 Three really great programs in Wildlife at the time one was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison one was at the University of Missouri. And one was at the University of Minnesota given my childhood of always wanting to go north for wildlife University of Missouri didn't hold much interest. So I went and interviewed at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and I went up an interview at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, and I loved what I saw at both schools, but Minnesota had a lot more of the kinds of things that I was excited about.

18:05 So, when did you learn that you were going to be studying while turkeys there?

18:11 Well, I had been there for

18:16 The fall and I was looking for a project and I had the opportunity to sign on to a big program that took graduate students to the Antarctic every year.

18:30 But I was newly married and I didn't really want to spend four months of my life every year in the Antarctic and leave my wife behind and we soon we're pregnant than so. That was a good choice not to do that. So I was looking for a project and one day the guy from the Minnesota DNR came by and into our lab and he said I'm looking for somebody who'd be interested in studying wild turkeys.

19:03 And I said, what do you want to know about them? And he said well we've put wild turkeys in Southeastern Minnesota people tell us they won't survive. We want to know what it will take to allow them to survive and reproduce in flourish in Minnesota. And I said, that sounds like a great great project.

19:27 So now

19:29 35 or so years later turkeys have made a huge Resurgence in the midwest. Do do you get how do you get the sign the credit for that or what? What is the what what you know, what was what allowed that to come about? Yeah, then you never get the credit. You deserve no one's ever willing to give you the credit. You deserve that give you credit for things you don't deserve and probably you should take it when that occurs, but why did they come back they came back?

20:01 For a couple reasons one we had Miss. We as a as a professional group of wildlife biologist had misunderstood wild turkeys for Generations. We thought they were a species that needed Big Oak forests extensive tracks of forest. Preferably in River Bottom lands and places like the Upper Midwest just didn't have a lot of forest but places like, Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama did have those four siblings. And so that's where turkey's existed.

20:50 My research in Southeastern Minnesota with that young transplanted population showed that wild turkeys could do really well in environments that were much less forested. In fact, the agriculture was an asset to wild turkeys because it provided enormous amount of food for them and it turned out that wild turkeys were not a forest species there a species that lives on the edges between forest and farmland and if you look at Minnesota and Wisconsin Eastern, Ohio much of New York, Pennsylvania, these were states where there was a lot of dairy agriculture. Will Dairy agriculture occurs in places where you can't get big plows and big tractors because the train is

21:50 To hilly and the soils are too variable in quality. And so not only do you have these Hills and variable soils, but you have a combination of Oconee forest and Agriculture and that just provided perfect habitat and my research work at the University of Minnesota demonstrated that it was good habitat and as a result

22:22 Many states in the Upper Midwest started moving turkeys from Missouri and Arkansas Mississippi transplanting them into various parts of the Upper, Mississippi Valley and the Great Lakes states and those turkeys flourished in today. Probably. We have one and a half to 2 million wild turkeys in the Great Lakes region. Did you think you had a 1975 hundreds of turkeys? Right and is a corn fields are those the most important agricultural corn fields in and Alfalfa fields and we have an abundance of both of those in the Upper Midwest. So we went from a few hundred turkeys there originally here. I mean that this is if you go back and look at the original estimates of the native range of wild turkeys.

23:22 Northern boundary

23:24 Probably went across southern Minnesota across central Wisconsin across Southern Michigan that Northern boundary was probably set by the amount of food and the and the length of the winter.

23:46 Today just been hunted to near-extinction and absolutely wild turkeys were the perfect food packet for pioneers and Native Americans because they were relatively abundant when early European Pioneers were coming through they were relatively easy to kill youngboy. We can go out and kill a turkey and carry it home. And so they made and they were big enough if they could feed a whole family for a couple of days and so they work sort of the perfect size animal to feed people who were living off the land.

24:33 And you've done a lot with hunting groups and Hunters have supported a lot of the conservation efforts and they put laws in place. Like you can't shoot a turkey from the roofs that sort of thing. How what's been the relationship with Hunters with this population growth are probably at least one-third of the reason that wild turkeys exist. The other two of those thirds are the research that's been done by the University's and the management that's done by state wildlife conservation agencies, but Hunters were key to this because they were the ones who put up the money to make it happen. They were the ones who Who provided the political pressure to get the state agencies to think about wild turkeys. They were the ones who were willing to protect wild turkeys early on from poaching.

25:30 From people who would would take advantage of these young early populations Hunters were the ones who said let's put fairly stringent laws in place to protect wild turkeys allow their populations to grow so Hunters were absolutely instrumental to it. So why do you think hunting is declining so much?

25:57 Well, there are a lot of there's a lot of research out there that shows that Society has moved.

26:08 From an agricultural experience where the bulk of the the largest percentage of Americans were living in agricultural environments in very small towns and young boys especially were spending a lot of their time hunting learning to Huntin and hunting and fishing to a society where the largest percentage of Americans now live in cities. It's not easy for young people to get out into the forests and Fields and places where they can hunt and fish and there are a lot of competing interests are a lot more sports program just there's a lot more video games. So there are things for youngsters to do other than to educate their parents to get

27:07 About in the in the fields and forests and and River bottoms. Like I did when I was young.

27:16 Hunting and fishing is slow compared with the pace of today's life. Isn't it? Compared to video games can be a lot less stimulating. But remember that a couple Generations ago. It was essentially the only Recreation you could hang around the house and the closer you were the house higher the probability that Mom or Dad would find something for you to do that you didn't really want to do but if you were out in the woods someplace a mile away with a 22 or shotgun or a fishing pole there was nobody to tell you what to do. And so a lot of young people spent a lot of their youth wandering the the woods in the river bottoms as I did.

28:09 So one thing that was special in our family was that you got to as a young Professor. You got to run this research station the Adirondacks in Upstate New York, and we went there a lot. How did you get that assignment?

28:25 Yeah, that was that was really one of the great fortunes of my career. We had finished.

28:35 I finished a PhD at the University of Minnesota was looking for a job. And your mom was reading the back of Science magazine where faculty jobs were advertised and she read this ad from the State University of New York College of environmental science and Forestry in Syracuse.

28:59 And she read it to me and said why couldn't you do this job and we were young family. I desperately needed a job. She looked down the road and said, you know, we're going to be starving here pretty shortly if you don't get a job. And so I applied for that one actually applied late. I called the chairman of the department who also was chairing the search committee and said, dr. Alexander. I just saw your ad would you accept my application and he said if you can have it here very soon because we'll start deliberating next week. And so I sent him an application out there.

29:47 Did you have any Publications under your belt at that point? I didn't know I was in fact, I didn't even have my degree in hand and I was offered the job. I wasn't on that job more than probably is probably in the second year.

30:10 But I was on that job.

30:13 Doing a job as a young Professor that I got a call from the upper administration at home and the person who called me said

30:23 We're looking for somebody's direct a research facility in the Adirondacks. It's a hundred and fifty miles away, but it's up in the Northwoods. It's a beautiful place. Would you consider it? Well had been there and

30:41 It reminded me of Minnesota and Canada. It reminded me of the North Woods and it was about outboard motor boats, and it was about fishing and Forestry and Wildlife and they had Eagles and Ospreys and and deer and I said

31:00 I really would like to do that job. I think I was probably 29 years old. That's a job for somebody mid-career somebody in their forties somebody with a lot of experience. So I went in with almost no experience but a passion for the Northwoods, they have a staff there. They had a staff of people there that I was supposed to manage. I knew almost nothing about managing a staff but had a lot of innate leadership skill and I learned a lot about listening working in the camera store and learned a lot about resonating back a message providing the kinds of things that people needed to do their job.

31:52 And so I got involved with this field station. We didn't move away from Syracuse. I had to keep commuting back and forth to this place, but I fell in love with the Adirondack Mountains and Huntington Wildlife Forest the name of this research station, and I got to know the staff and I spent my time commuting back and forth listening to self-help tapes on how to manage people and learning a lot about business management by listening to tapes and over the years. I got pretty good at it and we built that field station into quite a Powerhouse.

32:41 What Milestone meant the most to you professionally? I know that you're you got into AAA s in the 90s, which is really big deal. But it was there a paper or Milestone that meant the most to you. Yes, I am about to retire so I'm reflecting back on some of those milestones and there are two that I count.

33:06 The first one was teaching award. I am first as you know a teacher I'm a scientist. I'm a leader but teaching his what's in my blood and I was awarded the college wide teacher of the year award probably in about 1989 or 90 and I count that as as one of the greatest honors of my career. The other one was getting a call from Michigan State University and them saying would you consider coming out to take an endowed chair that we've just created we like what you do in Syracuse we'd like you to come out here and spend 5 to 10 years building the program you've built in Syracuse here. We have a quantitative Fisheries Center. We'd like you to build a compliment.

34:05 A quantitative Wildlife Center, like what you've done in Syracuse where you could bring state-of-the-art tools in statistics and computer modeling to some of the big challenges that we face in Wildlife Management.

34:23 Well to get an offer like that is really

34:30 An amazing opportunity and I came to Michigan State and my only regret is they didn't call me 10 years earlier because it would have been fun to do this this job at Michigan State a little bit longer and they have the kinds of issues that I love to deal with the name of the kinds of resources as a Big Ten institution that I never seen before and so we've been able to really do some powerful things here at Michigan State.

35:01 When you raised Brad and me are you settled out in the country? We had a barn and a stream and Fields. Can you talk about some of the trade-offs versus you know being closer in now, your grandkids are all growing up in very large Urban places so we can talk about that decision. And you know, how how you look back on that? Yeah. We your mom and I agreed very early on that. We did not want to live in the city know she grew up in very small towns in Western, Iowa. I grew up on The Fringe of a modest-sized metropolitan area in Eastern, Iowa.

35:47 We both had the opportunity to Rome and to get to know neighbors. Well, we wanted you to have the opportunity to grow up in a small town environment. We were long ways from the relatives. We weren't going back to Iowa. We wanted to be part of a small church. We wanted you to have the opportunity that I did to Rome the creeks in The Ravines and and the woods

36:24 There wasn't a big downside to it and our minds Syracuse was a fairly large city that was half an hour away. And so we had all the cultural amenities associated with that downside was we put a lot of miles on cars all the time. And when you guys were in high school, we were going back and forth to Skaneateles where the school was about three times a day and that was 11 miles One Direction.

36:56 So that's the only downside that we saw you saw some different downsides. I'm sure I remember you were worried a lot about drunk drivers and hitting deer on the roads and I. The vehicle related risks. Yes. We had a couple of minor fender-bender is but we never had any accidents where people got hurt and we never we never hit a deer. We had a couple of deer hit us. Let me just ask I think of temper one more question, but why did you why did you love Star Trek? Because we always watch that as a family and I did that. You know, why did that Fascinate You oh my goodness. That's a

37:43 I was I was fascinated by science from a very early age and so science fiction and comic books graphic arts graphic stories. And as I learn to read better, I got on to reading science fiction. And so Star Trek was the television manifestation of Science Fiction and it turns out I like to think about the future Star Trek was an imaginative future.

38:26 I really like the stories. I've been a writer all of my career. I've been a reader All of My Career. I love stories in Star Trek was storytelling at its best in my mind. So we kind of gathered around to look at the future and watch these these great stories of Science Fiction. So Kirk or Picard. Oh probably Picard.

38:58 It was a more sophisticated storytelling.

39:05 Well, I enjoyed I enjoyed watching those with the family growing up. That was so good memory of mine. So well, Dad. Thanks for coming into storycorps and sitting down and telling somebody stories with me. I will thanks for organizing this been this was an absolute treat. It's a great Christmas gift to be able to do this. I'm so pleased that you thought of this sand and we'll have more conversations about some of your questions in the future. Alright. Thanks a lot. Thank you.