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October 13, 2016

Obituary: Barbara L. Porter

obit. barbara porterBarbara L. Porter, former assistant dean and director of student services in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA), died Sept. 29, 2016, of pancreatic cancer.
She was 70.

Porter, a recipient of the 2005 Chancellor’s Award for Staff for Excellence in Service to the University, retired in 2012 after 42 years at Pitt.

A Pitt alumna, Porter earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish language and literature here in 1967; a master’s in vocational and rehabilitation counseling in 1968; and a doctorate in educational psychology in 1976.

Her work at Pitt began in the University-Community Educational Programs in 1970, where she served as a teacher-counselor before being named the program’s assistant director in 1973.

In 1978 she moved to GSPIA as assistant to the dean. A decade later, she became GSPIA’s assistant dean for administration. And in 1997 Porter was named GSPIA assistant dean and director of student services, the position she held at her retirement in 2012.

Former GSPIA dean Davis Bobrow first met Porter when he arrived at Pitt in 1988. “She became my right hand,” he said.

“She was a one-woman HR department, an ombudsman for students, staff and faculty, and a counselor — she was trained in counseling — but not just for students, faculty and staff but for me, too.”

Demanding of herself and of others, she conveyed her standards “without being snobby or snarky,” Bobrow said.

“She could be extremely clear about what her standards were,” he said, adding that she was good at gently but firmly pointing out when he himself fell short.

“She was very effective at leading because she was not talking the talk, she was walking the walk,” he said, recalling her extraordinary work ethic.

“She had wonderful values: absolute selflessness, great ability to take pride in the accomplishments of others,” he said.

Bobrow remembered Porter as an optimist. “It will get better” and “We can get through it without becoming the kind of people we don’t want to be,” were her attitudes, he said.

“She was a very stable person,” he added. “It was hard to knock her off her feet about anything. And I asked her to do things that I knew were difficult.”

She also was savvy and observant about people. “She had great curiosity,” he said. “She always found people and their ways interesting, sometimes amusing … sometimes problematic.”

Porter “was totally understanding of the ironies of life,” he said. “She didn’t think much of the neo-corporate style of the modern university.”

She was “not at all starchy,” but had a good sense of humor and an understanding that one could have fun in the workplace and still be a demanding professional, he said.

Having grown up with family in Alabama as well as in Pittsburgh, Porter’s speech was peppered with Southern idioms, Bobrow said, recalling an apropos African-American proverb he first heard from her: “Every shut eye ain’t sleep and every goodbye ain’t gone.”


Jessica Hatherill, an administrator in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Office of Undergraduate Studies, worked with Porter first as a graduate student employee and later as a GSPIA staff member.

She remembered Porter as a caring, generous mentor for both students and staff.

Education was important to Porter. “It was something she really prized,” Hatherill said. “She encouraged students and staff to pursue opportunities and develop.”

Porter on occasion would summon someone to join her on one of her regular “constitutionals,” using her cigarette break to mentor a student or co-worker who was in need of a heart-to-heart talk.

“She truly cared about other people and wanted them to succeed,” Hatherill said.

“She was a good judge of character,” Hatherill said, adding that Porter was skilled in bringing together teams that would work well together.

She also gave co-workers a voice, consulting others nearby — staff, students or faculty members — for impromptu “high policy council” meetings. “She would call together whoever was around to talk through an issue,” Hatherill said. “She gave people a voice, and pushed us in not just having an idea but backing it up,” she said: What do you think, and why?

Porter would resolve issues that perhaps wouldn’t have risen to her level. “She cared enough and people knew they could bring things to her,” Hatherill said.

Porter was ready to listen, but no pushover. Her facial expression wouldn’t give her away, but her body language indicated her level of credulity, Hatherill recalled. Porter would listen stone-faced as a student tried to wiggle out of some situation, but she would tilt her head — and the closer it got to her shoulder, the less she was buying their story.

“She was someone who really cared about the students and what they needed to be successful,” Hatherill said.

Not only was Porter the matriarch of her own family, she was motherly to GSPIA students — especially international students, who at that time weren’t able to stay as connected to home as they can today.

Hatherill said Porter was instrumental in finding Muslim students space at Posvar Hall to pray five times a day, because she knew it was important to them.

She and her husband, Ron, would open their home to host Thanksgiving dinners — in part to share a central part of American culture, as well as to provide a place where students knew they were welcomed. (See Nov. 22, 2006, University Times.)

GSPIA colleague Jean Hale said that Porter “lived and worked by the values she cherished: compassion, commitment, fairness, sincerity and truthfulness. She modeled these values even in the most challenging situations.

“She cared about those around her and made all of us feel valued, regardless of job title. I will always treasure her ability to bring just the right touch of humor and wit to the workplace, and her beautifully handwritten notes of thanks always brightened my day.”

Outside of work, Porter enjoyed reading, travel, the opera and the symphony. Her travels included trips to Korea, Japan, China, England, Egypt, South Africa, Ghana, Ethiopia and Kenya as well as regular vacations on Martha’s Vineyard.

She is survived by her husband of 48 years, Ronald D. Porter Sr.; sons Bryan and Ronald Jr.; five grandchildren; a great-grandson; and four sisters.

—Kimberly K. Barlow 

Filed under: Feature,Volume 49 Issue 4

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