An Interview with Helen Porter
By Tom Lady
Helen Porter has experienced the phenomenon known as the runner’s high only once in her life. It was when she ran her very first half-marathon.
“I was running up the hill. And it dawned on me that I was about to complete my first half-marathon. And I just floated. I was vaguely aware of passing people who were walking, and I thought, ‘Why are they walking? It’s a race!’ And I just glided across the finish. That’s still the only time I’ve had a runner’s high.”
She hands me a plaque with her name chiseled on it. It’s for taking first place in the “Women 80 and Over” category in the 5k race at the 36th Crescentia-Cañada YMCA Fiesta Days Run on May 30, 2011. Just as I start to say how impressed I am, Helen says, “Oh I’ve got gazillions of those…Yeah, it’s fun when you win.”
Helen picked up running in the late 1970s after her first husband passed away. “I was young. I thought, ‘What am I going to do for the rest of my life?’ One thing I wanted to do was get in shape. I’d never been good at anything physical in my life.”
Fast-forward to 2015. Helen has logged literally hundreds of races, including innumerable half-marathons.
One day, while Helen was out for a run, she literally ran into this guy named Roger. Naturally that led to dating.
As it turned out, Roger had a case of the opera bug. Helen was no stranger to the Saturday Met broadcasts, but she'd never actually attended an opera. Roger took care of that, giving her his ticket on a night when he had to teach his ceramics class. The opera? Carmen. It was love at first tragic aria.
Helen and Roger have been LA Opera regulars from the outset and have yet to miss a single performance. They were also charter members of the Opera League. Helen’s volunteerism has included cast dinners and Shop at the Opera. Her forte, however, was hopping on the horn to welcome new members. Helen spent decades on the phone as a travel agent convincing people to visit the South Pacific, which might be the easiest job ever. "Calling people is second nature to me. It was fun to share my love of opera with these new people."
With all that culture and all that running, you might think she didn’t have time for much else. Guess again. This Omaha native has a very active creative mind that’s found expression through such media as painting and drawing and braided rugs. Parked on one of her dining room chairs is a painting of Maestro Domingo. Several versions of Ginger Rogers line her hallway.
“I started taking painting and drawing lessons after I married Roger," she says. "I just loved it. I can’t do oils because I’m allergic to the oil. I work in acrylics…and I do drawings.” She holds up a drawing of Mahler from multiple perspectives. “Mahler’s my favorite composer.”
Her husband still teaches ceramics. After he donated 3,000 books on ceramics (who knew there were that many books on ceramics?) to the American Museum of Ceramic Art, the only ceramics museum in California, the museum named their library after them.
As for those braided rugs, Helen's got tons of them, stacked two and three deep all around her living room. "I've braided my way through life."
Her next painting will be of Renée Fleming, whom Helen met at a CD signing in Omaha coinciding with a performance of Maria Padilla. "She's a good girl," Helen smiles. "Such a nice, person." Helen shows me several photos of Renée Fleming from multiple angles that will help her capture the soprano’s likeness. "Such an interesting face. Like Marlene Dietrich."
Helen’s son is also an artist. He and one of Helen’s daughters live in the area. She has another daughter back in Omaha. Rounding out the clan are a slew of grandkids and, as of February 2014, a great-grandson.
On my way out, I spot a copy of Lonesome Dove open on a reading stand. The lifelong bookworm explains she’s on a mission to plow through Larry McMurtry’s entire oeuvre.
“I can’t wait to start running again,” Helen says as we reach the front door. She’s been fighting a nagging injury that causes her feet to swell. The way I see it, though, with a house that manifests her boundless creative energy in so many ways, Helen Porter has achieved a runner’s high many, many times.