Friday, July 22, 2011

Meet the Man Behind the Gift

By Nathan Hatch, President of Wake Forest University (published in the Charlotte Observer on July 21)

Porter Byrum’s recent gift of Park Road Shopping Center to Wake Forest University, Queens University and Wingate University is more than just the latest example of generosity from a local philanthropist.

It is indicative of Mr. Byrum’s adherence to the principles instilled in him by his grandfather and his parents. It demonstrates his belief that perseverance can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, that education equals opportunity, and that helping others is the key to a meaningful and well-lived life.

Porter Byrum’s grandfather, Isaac, grew up in Chowan County near the coast and fought in the Battle of Gettysburg, where he was seriously injured and lost a leg. After spending time in a prison hospital in Maryland, Isaac Byrum walked back to North Carolina using a wooden leg, a device now on display in the Museum of the Albemarle.

Against great odds, he carved a small farm out of the forest to provide for his family of nine.

Porter Byrum’s father, John Thomas Byrum, felt called to the Baptist ministry as a teenager and graduated from Wake Forest in 1908. His senior thesis, written in his own hand, still exists in the University archives and tells the story of their home church, Ballard’s Bridge Baptist Church, which dates from 1781. Ministering to churches in Winston-Salem, Wilmington and Chowan County, John Thomas raised a family of deep conviction. Their resources, however, were not as abundant as their faith. Mr. Byrum recalls hunting and fishing with his brothers – not as sport but to enhance the family table. Mr. Byrum, 91, continues to be an avid sportsman and lover of nature to this day.

Mr. Byrum’s parents were passionate about their faith and about educating their five sons, despite financial challenges. Scholarships allowed four of them, including Porter, to attend Wake Forest University.

“Daddy had one ambition in life: to college educate his five boys,” Byrum said. “He lived to see all five of us attain college degrees.” Porter and his brother, David, became lawyers, his brother, Conwell, a physician, and his brother, Paul, a teacher. A fifth brother, John, chose to study engineering at North Carolina State University.

Porter Byrum was a stalwart of “the Greatest Generation.” After college, he enlisted in the army but was not allowed to become an officer, as he was color-blind. He was involved in extensive combat, including the Battle of the Bulge. A crack marksman since the days of his youth, Porter received a battlefield promotion to lieutenant for his skill in directing artillery fire to enemy positions.

He also served in Korea, where he was part of the U.S. military government immediately after the Japanese were expelled.

Mr. Byrum remembers those years with a novelist’s eye for detail. He can recall what it was like being shot at in a foxhole, to endure winter without proper clothing, and, as a young officer, to be responsible for compelling citizens from a small German town to visit the ravages of a concentration camp only days after its liberation.

Porter Byrum moved to Charlotte in the early 1950s and set up his legal practice. He applied his talent shrewdly and creatively, with a rare ability to solve problems for clients and assist with their business deals.

For nearly 60 years, he practiced law in the way he thought best and allocated time to projects of his own choosing. He never charged clients an hourly fee, nor for the time he spent exploring whether he would accept a case; billing was premised on the actual help he delivered. To him, the work was more about a much broader purpose – making a difference and helping others, living the spirit of Pro Humanitate (for humanity) that he learned as a youth and as a student at Wake Forest.

From its earliest days in the 1950s, Mr. Byrum was involved with the Park Road Shopping Center. In 1967, Mr. Byrum bought the center and has been involved in actively managing it ever since. Scores of businesses located within the center attest to Mr. Byrum’s distinct style – firm and fair, supportive, committed to long-term relationships. Mr. Byrum has always taken a rare personal interest in the well-being and success of Park Road’s merchants.

The most remarkable thing about Mr. Byrum is his steady purpose. Never distracted by success, he continues to demonstrate an unwavering commitment to his principles, as well as his friends and colleagues. He, in fact, lives in the same home he built more than 50 years ago, and his life remains remarkably straightforward and uncomplicated.

Mr. Byrum speaks often of the influence of his parents, John and Ida Ward Byrum, and their strong moral compass. Their abiding principles of doing right and doing good are wonderfully reflected in the life of their son.

We are grateful indeed that this special man chose to extend that same opportunity and challenge to future generations of worthy students.

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