John Porter's office at T.C. Williams High School is crammed with two decades of mementos. Plaques, coffee mugs, books, personal notes, stuffed animals, a relaxing water feature, photos with visiting dignitaries — yet somehow it all looks orderly. Since assuming the office of principal in 1984, Porter has moved his desk once. But other than that, the room looks pretty much the same — except for all the stuff.
"Cleaning all this out is going to take some time," he said. "I really haven't started yet."
In August, Porter will begin his new job as assistant superintendent for public information and outreach. The salary has yet to be determined, but school officials say it could range from $95,841 to $144,782.
Interviews with teachers, administrators, School Board members, parents and students indicate that replacing Porter will be impossible. Nevertheless, a new principal will be named within the month — and the committee that has been charged with finding the next principal for T.C. Williams High School has identified four candidates. At least one is from Alexandria. But none are Porter.
"He's produced a school that's created tremendous dividends, and he's shaped it to really make it work," said School Board Chairman Mark Wilkoff. "Replacing him will not be easy, and I know we're not going be please everybody because there is no John Porter clone."
Porter does not want a clone. And although he is pleased with his accomplishments at T.C. Williams, he says that it's time to move on.
"When I took this position 21 years ago, I thought I'd stay here for six or seven years," he said. "It's time to do something else. I believe both individuals and institutions benefit from change."
He wants to use his new position to advocate for the schools, which are often maligned by some as wasteful and mismanaged. Porter — and many involved in the day-to-day activities of school administration — feel that better communication is needed with the public.
"I want to promote all the positive things the schools are doing," he said. "We're in competition with private schools, and people need to know what we're up to."
JOHN PORTER was born in the District of Columbia, but he's lived in Alexandria most of his life. He grew up in Rosemont, and attended Alexandria public schools: Maury, Lee and Jefferson Houston. When he was a teenager, his parents moved to Del Ray — where his mother still lives. He graduated from George Washington High School in 1965.
"I don't remember much about the day I graduated," he said. "That part of my life was ending, and it was a little scary what might happen next. That was a time with the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement were changing things very rapidly, and people my age were asking themselves what they wanted to do with their lives."
Porter chose education. Inspired by an uncle who taught in public schools, Porter majored in history at North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount, N.C., where he was president of his class for four years. While away in college, he married his high school sweetheart here in Alexandria. He took the education classes that were necessary to enter the public school system. And then he came back to Alexandria to start a family and a career.
"When I came back here in 1969, finding a job was not easy," he said. "Things were different back then. If you knew somebody who could get you in the door, that's how you entered the system."
Porter knew Irving Lindsey, an Alexandria math teacher who was said to have been part of the Manhattan Project. Lindsey opened doors for Porter. Soon afterward, he interviewed for a social studies position at Parker Gray Middle School. He got the job, and he has been working in the system ever since.
"At the end of the first year, I kind of said to myself 'Gee, that was hard,' But the second year was much easier," he said. "College cannot prepare you for the classroom. Until you have your own class, you don't realize all the work that goes into it."
Teaching American history and Virginia history at the middle school was difficult but rewarding work. For Porter, it was a matter of preparation.
"Teaching is like running football plays," he said. "If the first one doesn't work, you've got to have another one ready."
In 1971, the Porters had their first child — and John Porter began working on a master's degree in education from Virginia Tech. Then he moved from teaching history to being a "resource teacher," counseling children who were discipline problems. He finished his graduate coursework in 1973, and then he was offered a job as assistant principal at Hammond, which was then a school that offered 8th and 9th grades. Porter was in charge of student welfare.
"It was everything I had hoped it would be. It was interesting and rewarding work," he said. "I look back on that time as a very important opportunity for me to grow."
After two years working at Hammond, Superintendent John Albohm called Porter into his office at 418 South Washington St., where the administration offices were then located. Albohm offered Porter the job of principal at Ramsay Elementary School.
"Can I talk it over with my wife?" Porter remembers asking the superintendent.
"What's there to think about? This is your chance," said Albohm. "Don't blow it."
PORTER ACCEPTED the position at Ramsay even though he had no experience in elementary education other than college coursework. But the effort and determination that he had used to excel as a teacher and assistant principal were useful at Ramsay.
"I remember sitting on the beach at Nags Head wondering if I had made the right decision," said Porter. "But it turned out all right. The most rewarding thing about being principal is the wide variety of duties — everything from cafeteria duty to putting together a budget. I loved it."
In 1978, he moved to Adams Middle School. But a reorganization of the secondary education system closed Adams the end of the year. So Porter made a life-changing career move. He went to high school. During the 1979 to 1980 school year, Porter was the assistant principal for curriculum and instruction at T.C. Williams High School.
"I had never worked with high school students before," he said. "So I tried to learn everything I could about educational settings for high school."
When Principal Robert Haney took an administrative job in the central office, Porter applied for the position. Superintendent Bob Peebles hired him — and there he's been since 1984.
"People can talk about test scores or grade-point averages or championships — and all of that is important, but I think that the real measure of success are the individual stories I hear from former students," he said. "When I hear someone tell me that they're feeling good about who they are and where they are in life — that's how I measure success."
When asked how many students had come through T.C. Williams during his time as principal, Porter looked up as if to calculate in his head. Wanting to get a more definitive answer, he pulled his desk drawer open and brought out his calculator. He quickly typed some numbers on the keypad and stared at the machine in amazement.
"44,000 Titans," he said. "Gee, I guess I never thought of it that way."
For a moment, he was silent. And then the phone rang. A student knocked on the door for advice on how to get a last-minute graduation gown. An assistant principal stopped by. The daily drama resumed.
"I DON'T KNOW how they'll replace him. I really don't," said Vice Mayor Del Pepper. "He's been the glue that has held this school together for so long. You don't get the trust of parents and students like John Porter has without being the real thing. And he's the real thing."
Friends and colleagues remark on Porter's easygoing style.
"I've never seen him be short with people, he's always so positive," said G.H. Hagen, a tech resources teacher who has known Porter for 28 years. "And I've been in meetings that were quite contentious. But Porter never lost his cool. He stayed positive and upbeat the whole time."
Mary Lou Smith, a teacher at T.C. Williams has known Porter since 1983, when he was assistant principal. She admired his constant determination to be a part of student life.
"He goes to all the activities — choral events, plays sporting events ó everything," she said. "And then he sends a letter telling the students how wonderful they were."
Porter's personal notes are legendary at the school. In an age when most people are likely to send an e-mail — if anything — the principal is famous for sending greeting cards with handwritten personal notes. Birthdays, anniversaries, tragedies and triumphs did not go unrecognized at T.C. Williams.
"The personal notes will be one of the most important parts of his legacy," said Superintendent Rebecca Perry. "These were not just 'hi, how are you doing' notes. They were really well thought out and touching."
AT FRIDAY'S GRADUATION, Porter made one last stand. Soon, he will begin the task of cleaning out that office that he has used for the last 21 years. Layers of memories and mementos will be put into boxes.
"It's been a great run," said Porter. He paused and looked over the work that lies ahead. "A great run."