For the second time in a decade, Porter B. Byrum has significantly changed our institutions – Wake Forest, Queens, Wingate Universities – for the better. The first was in 2011 when he sold his beloved Park Road Shopping Center and donated the earnings to student financial aid. The second came this year when, after his death in March, he left the majority of his estate – more than $140 million – to create opportunities for deserving students.
To most, Porter Byrum was a Charlotte attorney, businessman, philanthropist and champion of education. But to those who knew him, he was an endearing soul with a sharp wit, clever business sense and candid character. He lived quietly, but had one of those larger-than-life stories.
As a child, Porter witnessed the effects of the Great Depression when a neighbor had to sell everything and leave his home. Porter and his four brothers fought against poverty in their own way – hunting and fishing to make sure their family had food.
After college and law school at Wake Forest, he entered the Army. He fought for General Patton at the Battle of the Bulge and later went on to earn a battlefield promotion. Just days after the liberation of Buchenwald Concentration Camp, Porter was one of the American soldiers who took German citizens through the camp to see the atrocities that occurred just five miles from where they lived.
When he arrived in Charlotte in the early 1950s to begin his law career, he had just enough money to rent a room in the Professional Building. Certain that he would never succeed, some discouraged Porter from practicing law and instead encouraged him to pursue truck driving. Several years later, after he had created a solid business for himself, Porter purchased the Professional Building.
In the mid 1960s, after working with Jenks Caldwell Sr., of Charlotte Aircraft Corporation, for several years, Porter purchased Park Road Shopping Center – the first open-air shopping center in the Southeast, and the largest of its kind between Washington D.C. and Atlanta. He was a fair landlord, a creative problem solver and a mentor to dozens of business owners. For example, in 2008, when the economy was stretching everyone thin, he required his tenants to pay only half of their rent for a few months. When tenants had the ambition to grow into larger spaces or presented solid ideas for a new venture, Porter often worked with them to make it happen. From his office at Park Road, he led in his distinct style – firm and fair, supportive and committed to long-term relationships.
For all that Porter saw and did in his life, there was a turning point that set him on his trajectory. It was when he received his college education. Because he was the son of a minister, his tuition at Wake Forest was waived as it was for three of his brothers. What stuck with him is the opportunity he was given.
Out of abundant gratitude, it was that opportunity he wanted to offer to others. There came a time in Porter’s life when his currency ceased to be money. Instead, he started counting his value in scholarships. When he was faced with a business decision, he didn’t consider how much it cost him, he wondered how many scholarships it would cost students he would never meet.
His greatest joy was not in the recognition of what he had given, but rather, in watching what those who had been given an opportunity would do with it. He read hundreds of thank you notes from students in Winston-Salem; Wingate students visited with him and shared their stories; and nurses and caretakers who had attended Queens on a Byrum scholarship were among those who cared for him in his last days.
We are grateful Porter’s legacy will live on at our universities for generations to come, benefiting students given the opportunity to prove their potential. But Porter Byrum – the man we knew and deeply respected – will be forever missed.
Hatch is president of Wake Forest University; Davies is president of Queens University of Charlotte; and Brown is president of Wingate University.