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Don Porter, member of pioneer Wiregrass Ranch family in Pasco County, dies at 73

WESLEY CHAPEL — Pasco County has lost another piece of its history.

Don Porter, "a quiet giant" whose family's former cattle ranch is now the site of a hospital, a state college, a regional mall, a proposed Raymond James Financial campus, sports complex and thousands of homes, died Tuesday (July 1, 2014). He was 73.

"I was the luckiest guy on earth," said his son, J.D. Porter, who now manages development operations for the Wiregrass Ranch property, a role his father once held.

But no matter who served as spokesperson, family members had an equal say in decision making, J.D. Porter said.

"We were almost like the Three Musketeers by default," he said. "A lot of family businesses fail in a couple of generations, but when you look around (the property) it speaks volumes."

Mr. Porter died after being diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, a disease that recently killed disc jockey Casey Kasem.

He was the first of three sons born to James "Wiregrass" Porter, a pioneer patriarch who moved his wife and three sons from Plant City to a wood frame moonshiner's house at the ranch in 1946.

Young Don was a standout baseball player who was educated in a one-room schoolhouse. In high school, he once struck out 20 of 21 hitters. At 16, he went to the University of Mississippi, where he was an All-American in baseball and a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps.

The Houston Colt 45s drafted Mr. Porter in the first round. He played on a minor league team with the likes of Joe Morgan and against Lou Brock before entering the Army. After leaving the military, he played baseball one more year and came home to help run Two Rivers Ranch in Crystal Springs and later, his family's ranch.

While riding an elevator, he met a legal receptionist named Lajuana Whitlock. Their marriage lasted 38 years until Mrs. Porter died in 2008.

The family lived in a house on the site where Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel now sits. Health care was so far away that Mrs. Porter became certified as an emergency medical technician.

Don Porter and his brothers were heavily shaped by the patriarch Wiregrass Porter, who refused to move from his small brick home even as developers offered him $100,000 an acre. But he always said the time wasn't right.

"We still believe in romance in a slam-bam world," Don Porter told the Tampa Bay Times in 2003.

After changing hands several times, part of the property became Saddlebrook, the tennis and golf resort. Another piece became Meadow Pointe, a mega residential community.

Then in the late 1990s, the family began to make more plans. The result was the Shops at Wiregrass, a regional outdoor mall, and an 80-bed hospital that opened in 2012.

The crowning achievement for Don Porter was Pasco-Hernando State College. The family donated 60 acres for the campus, which opened this year.

"He was a dynamic individual who was so passionate about higher education," college President Katherine Johnson said.

Family dreams sometimes clashed with Pasco government rules. An effort to build and run a sports complex fell apart, but the family ultimately donated the property.

"He gave me a sign that said 'You can't get blood out of a turnip,'" said retired County Administrator John Gallagher. "I stuck it on the wall in my office."

Mr. Porter's death came as sad news to Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

"Don Porter was a giant in Pasco County," Weatherford said. "The contributions he and his family have made to our community are significant."

An avid nature lover, he had a phone with an extra long cord that allowed him to sit by the lake and discuss possible deals.

"Radio Shack said it was 30 feet long but I think it was more like 67 feet when he got done with it," J.D. Porter said.

Mr. Porter is survived by son, J.D., daughter, Quinn Miller, and her husband, Matthew, of Odessa; brother, William H. and his wife, Debby; of Dade City, and three grandchildren.

A memorial service is set for 2 p.m. July 12 at the Porter campus conference center of Pasco-Hernando State College at 2727 Mansfield Blvd, Wesley Chapel. Hodges Family Funeral Home of Dade City is handling arrangements.

Don Porter, member of pioneer Wiregrass Ranch family in Pasco County, dies at 73 07/01/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 1, 2014 7:10pm]

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