Building Bridges: An Interview With Sonny Porter

In what seems to be a time of ever-increasing strife, this column is a small attempt to build bridges with our neighbors. The broken bridges and steel-clad social bubbles that keep us apart can begin to mend and thin as we get to know the stories that define each other. In this space I will be interviewing community members of all walks of life from throughout the Voice readership area … may you enjoy meeting them, and may this build bridges for us all. Thank you for joining me on this journey.

By Jennifer Moore-Kerr

Several people directed me to interview Clarence “Sonny” Porter. I was told that he is a legend in Arena, that he is a “hoot,” that his stories would be perfect … and they were right. And more. I am grateful for the direction.

Sonny Porter

Sonny’s family goes back three generations in the area. His great-grandparents arrived in a covered wagon from Missouri. They were reputed to be independent and highly opposed to working for anyone but themselves. They were barbers, a skill that kept Sonny out of barbershops until he was about 17. It seems that at least the self-sufficient sentiment carried on through the generations. The family has stayed ’round Arena ever since those early barbers, and they have found many ways to be self-sufficient. Sonny and his lifelong sweetheart, Marion — they were four months shy of having been married for 70 years when she passed away in 2017 — ran their own restaurant out of the front of their home in Arena for 37 years. They had three sons, all of whom still live in the area. They figured stuff out. They farmed, she had a truck garden, he worked construction, he worked with his dad and uncle making counter tops. She ran the restaurant. Sometimes he waited tables. He and Marion always had a paycheck. And that mattered to them. Being self-sufficient mattered.

The Porters have left their mark on Arena and the River Valley. In response to my question about what keeps him here, he simply replied that he never cared to move away.  He feels that the people here are accepting. That a farming community cares about each other; they stand at the fence and visit and give help when help is needed. But he is not as hopeful as he would like to be about the future of the community. He sees that neighborliness fading away as people lose their connections to one another. It’s a different world. He sees kids who weren’t taught right from wrong. He is concerned that common sense and responsibility are getting lost. However, he is careful to say that he knows times are different. But I felt his sadness as he spoke of the future. Too often, he ponders, people aren’t allowed to experience their hard times, someone comes in and “saves” them. He believes they need to go through their hard times to get stronger. When he looks back at his own hard times, he attributes his ability to get through them to his family: his parents, his wife and his children. And he continually reminded me “not to make a lot out of” him.

In his Arena home, Sonny Porter is surrounded by memories of his wife, Marion, above.

While family ranks first for Sonny, he spoke lovingly about his friends, remembered others in the community with respect, and always attributed things he learned to those people. Being with his friends makes him happy, and so do hugs! People who try to impress, and who don’t understand the truth in the plaque at Grandma Mary’s (another person for whom he holds great respect) — “sit with a stranger, end up with a friend” — and just don’t have common sense, make him sad.

As I listened to stories that I imagine have been told before, I heard something else from this delightful, modest 91-year-old man. His stories weren’t necessarily in any order, they flowed from one to another, but what tied them together was his humility and gratitude for a life well lived. Not an easy life, but one with purpose and determination. He spoke with melancholy about a set of values he feels are being lost. Hard work. Figuring things out. Getting a paycheck. Common sense. Here was a man who didn’t graduate from high school, has never left the River Valley, always had a job, but doesn’t speak of a career, and is often self-deprecating in a gentle, joking way. I came away feeling honored by my time with him. There is much to learn from him. His values spoke of someone who has always tried to make the best of whatever befell him. His stories were engaging. Sometimes funny, sometimes with a moral, always with humility toward himself and pride toward Marion. Early in the interview Sonny spoke of himself and Marion in the following way: “We weren’t a married couple, we were a team.” Throughout our time together his stories were about that team … unless he wanted to be clear that she was smarter, or better at something than he was. He told me that he used to think that it would “be really super to be my own boss.” Then he paused, seemed to choke up, took a moment, and finished with, “it ain’t so.” Later he said, again about Marion, “You need someone that needs you.” What a tribute to marriage, or to being part of a team, this interview was for me.

In his Arena home, Sonny Porter is surrounded by memories of his childhood.

Our time together was sprinkled throughout with these bits of wisdom. I did my best to absorb them and treat them with honor. What must it be like to be 91 years old, to have a chance to look back and try to tell a stranger what your life has meant, who you are … I am humbled. A life cannot be pared down to my few questions. And yet, somehow, I believe that I came away with a sense of this man. Yes, he was a “hoot” — he has had laughter in his life and sees the value in it. There was the year that he bought a boat and motor “for Marion” for her birthday in August … and then she, in turn, bought a new washer and dryer, complete with a big red ribbon around them for his birthday the next January! And, once, when he got up from his chair to show me something, he said, “Don’t worry, I’m a bit wobbly, but I won’t fall.” Then with a pause and a twinkle in his voice he said, “I won’t fall for you!”

When Sonny wasn’t telling a story, or extolling the virtues of Marion, he often became thoughtful. That thoughtfulness moved between concern for the state of people nowadays, and reflections on his life. One area that seemed to get a fair amount of attention was education. Marion had been the valedictorian of her class. He had “gone in the front door and out the back” of the high school. In telling me about his “lack of education” he quoted Mark Twain, saying that he never let his schooling get in the way of his education. I pointed out that to quote a literary figure was perhaps a sign of an educated person! His response was again to be thoughtful and then state, “I didn’t know a whole lot about anything, but I knew a little about most things.” Common sense ranks very highly with Sonny, and being able to figure things out is profoundly important to him. 

When the conversation turned to financial responsibility it was clear that Sonny felt discouraged by what he sees around him these days. But rather than criticize others, he told a story from when he was a young married man: He took a calf to the stockyard (he told me it was located where Hometown Supermarket in Spring Green is now) and sold it for $10. He and Marion had a $12 grocery bill that week. So Sonny got the idea to buy $10 worth of scrap iron, which he was then able to take to Mineral Point and sell for $35. That night he and Marion went to the movies. They went to Jennings for a hamburger and a malt, and the next day he paid their grocery bill. When he finished telling the story, Sonny said, “A lot of people done the same thing, we had to figure out how to do it the best we could. We all want something we don’t have … . If you have friends, enough to pay your bills, family that gets along, what more do you need?”

]Jennifer Moore-Kerr is a mom, a free spirit and a barefoot dancer living in Spring Green where she can walk to the river and commune with friends. She can often be found welcoming locals and visitors alike to the Spring Green General Store where she tends the register most days. To suggest ideas for future “Bridges” columns, email jennifermrkrr2@gmail.com.