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A public office is only an opportunity for rendering real service to the public. Whether that opportunity is utilized depends upon the man. Several years ago the people of Topeka elected William Leslie Porter commissioner of parks and public properties. When he entered office he was new to the duties, and he was practically without political experience. But he had exhibited other qualities far more important that political experience. He had a well defined ambition to do everything he could for the community welfare through the opportunity afforded by his office. Mr. Porter also had a reputation of having a strong will and ample determination to carry out any plan upon which he embarks. The results in the past two or three years stand as a splendid justification of his election as commissioner.
Some brief survey of what had been accomplished in those two or three years is necessary to complate the personal record of Mr. Porter and is also an important chapter in Topeka municipal history. In the year 1914 one small playground was eatablished in one of the Topeka parks. The experiment was one of unqualified success from the standpoint of the parents, the neighborhood and the children. Then followed an association composed of members of the school board, the city commissioners and the Commercial Club. The association appointed a legislative committee. This committee appeared before the legislature in 1915 and pleaded for the enactment of a law giving to the school board the right to make a levy of a quarter of a mill for the support of playgrounds. The law passed, and thus in 1915 the real playground movement in Topeka was inaugurated. Here nine playgrounds were maintained, a staff of sixteen supervisors was kept on duty, and the total enrollment on these various playgrounds aggregated about 6,000. During 1916 it is planned to give the city three or four additional playgrounds, bringing the total number up to twelve or thirteen. In 1915 the value of the equipment installed on the nine playgrounds was about $3,600. At first the extent of the work was met by subscriptions and by entertainments given by the children. About $2,000 was collected in this way to pay for supervision. In Topeka those most closely identified with the movement are of the opinion that the proper supervision of playgrounds is a most important feature and hence the large staff required to direct and supervise the management of these different grounds.
In 1913, the year Mr. Porter was elected commissioner of parks, a social survey of Topeka was made under government auspices. The investigator who did most of the work reported particularly on the milk and the general sanitary situation. The results of his investigation as to the milk supply were starling. Some of the samples of local milk when analyzed at the Manhattan Agricultural College and the Kansas University showed a bacterial count of more than 85,000,000 per eubic centimeter. With the publication of this report Mr. Porter at once recommended that the city officials secure a new milk inspector together with a bacteriologist as an assistant. Then followed a year and six months of educational campaign among the dairymen and producers, at the end of which time the high bacterial count was reduced to something like 80,000 per cubic centimeter. The new inspector inaugurated a score card system by which the results of the milk examination were shown at regular intervals. This stimulated the dairymen to work on their own account in order to seeure a high score. Formerly the inspector found it necessary to go around and use his official authority to get the dairies cleaned up. But with the score card system the dairymen of their own accord did the cleaning and exercised every practical means toward getting a favorable report on their products. According to a statement by Dr. S. J. Crumbine in an address before Topeka people, the city now had the best milk supply in the United States with one exception.
The social survey also reported a lamentable condition of affairs prevailing in the health department. Up to that time the head of the health department, its secretary, was paid a nominal salary of $60 per month. No competent services could be secured for such wages. Again Commissioner Porter made the important suggestion which brought about a change in the system in 1915, and since then a health officer had been employed at a salary which enables him to give all his time and energies to the supervision of the public health. He had complete authority over public sanitation, including the carding and quarantining of all contagious diseases. Since then there had been a material decrease in contagious diseases and the death rate in the city had been lowered. During the last three years there had come about a steady decline in infant mortality, In 1913 the infant death rate was twelve out of a hundred babies born, while in 1915 the rate was only 8.6 in a hundred. These gratifying results are largely due to an improved milk supply and the more efficient work of the public health nurses.
Returning again to the matter of public parks. In 1913 Topeka had 188 acres of park grounds, but practically without facilities and almost unused by the people. There was not a single baseball diamond or tennis court. Such portions of the park as had grass showed a number of signs ” Keep off the Grass. ” Trees were even planted and shrubs placed in some parts of the parks, in order to discourage the playing of children on the grounds and keep the people generally off the grassy spots. In the last two years some of these parks have been entirely devoted to playground purposes, six baseball grounds have been laid out, a public golf course and fifteen tennis courts. Thirty-two acres of ground have been added to the park system and the people are learning to demand more each year in the way of appropriations for purchasing ground and the addition of general amusement features. Plans are now under consideration for providing more equipment, and especially the laying out of additional baseball grounds, tennis courts and other places for healthy sports. When Mr. Porter went into office the city owned a pest house southeast of the town. It was seldom tenanted and yet it cost a good deal to maintain. At Mr. Porter’s suggestion the council provided that this should be converted into a sanitarium for the care of tuberculosis patients among dependent people, and this sanitarium is now being established. It is Mr. Porter’s eommendable ambition that when he shall leave his office to have it considered one of the most efficient departments in a municipal government anywhere in the west.
William Leslie Porter is a native of Kansas, and was born in Douglas County September 30, 1884. He was one of the four children of Alfred Sutton and Clara (Laughlin) Porter. His maternal grandfather was a pioneer in the West, was a trader among the Indians, and for some years prior to the building of continental railways conducted wagon trains from the Missouri River to Colorado Springs. He was killed by lightning while sitting under a tree and engaged in making a trade with an Indian. After his death his widow conducted the wagon trains herself for several years, and finally settled at Manhattan, Kansas, where her daughter Mrs. A. S. Porter now lives. Alfred S. Porter was born in Liverpool, England, but when a child was brought to Kansas by his father James Porter, who located on a farm southwest of Lawrence. Before coming to this country they had heard a great deal about Kansas, such as to lead them to expect that they could pick money off the trees. They made their first crops in the year 1871. That was the first incursion of the grasshopper pest, and the complete destruction of their crops all but discouraged them in their enterprise in the new land: However, James Porter and son were of true pioneer fibre, and they kept up their work until they reached a degree of material success which enabled James Porter to-retire in 1899. He then moved to Topeka, where he died in 1903. His widow died in September, 1905, and both are laid to rest in the Topeka Cemetery. Alfred Sutton Porter was married in 1883 to Miss Laughlin. He continued farming until 1894, when while engaged in lifting a heavy burden he wrenched his back and had to give up the active work of the farm.
At that crisis in the family affairs William L, Porter was just ten years of age. He was small in stature, but being the oldest child he had to assume the major share of responsibilities and act as head of the household. He was so small that it was necessary for him to stand on a chair while harnessing the horses, but he nobly performed a man’s work and did practically everything connected with farming, plowing, harvesting and thus continued until he was thirteen. At that time his mother being ambitious to give her children a better education induceed her husband to move to Manhattan, where she conducted a boarding house in the residential district for a time. A. S. Perter on recovering from his injury subsequently engaged in the real estate business under the title of Blue Valley Real Estate Company, with Seth Yenowine as a partner. A few years later he sold his interests to Mr. Yenowine and formed with Walter More the Manhattan Realty Company, in which he is still active. In 1913 he was appointed police judge by the mayor and also helds that position, and is one of the prominent men of Manhattan.
Such were the circumstances and conditions environing the early life of William L. Porter. Prior to the injury to his father he had attended the country schools, and when the family moved to Manhattan he went to public school there and for a year was in the Kansas State Agricultural College in the preparatory department. Leaving Manhattan he moved to Topeka and learned the plumbing trade under Frank P. Edison. After completing his apprenticeship he again returned to the Kansas Agricultural College for a technical course, and was a student there a year and a half. One of his school mates at the time was Miss Gweneth May Petty. On August 1, 1907, this young couple went to Liberty, Missouri, and were married in that city. They kept their marriage a secret from their friends and parents for about six months.
Then in January, 1908, Mr. and Mrs. Porter went to El Paso, Texas. He was there only about six months, and owing to the hard times brought on by the panie of 1907 he returned to Topeka and entered the services of the H. E. Shaffer Plumbing Company. He remained with that concern until the spring of 1913, when he was called by the citizens to his present office as commissioner of parks and public property.
On coming to Topeka Mr. Porter joined the Plumbers’ Union, was a delegate to its various conventions, and his popularity among its members and his interest in public affairs caused him to be urged by the labor union as a candidate for the office he now holds. Mr. Porter is a past president of the Plumbers’ Union and past president of the Industrial Council at Topeka. He is a Mason and also a member of the Knights and Ladies of Security. Mr. and Mrs. Porter have one child, James William, aged five.