KANEOHE, Hawaii --
Robert Porter ducked behind his school with a friend to sneak a smoke in between classes. He threw the evidence into a nearby field — causing the hay to ignite. He owned up to his mistake and worked an entire summer to repay his debt to the farmer.
That was the kind of man the retired sergeant major was - one who valued honesty, honor and integrity.
“One thing he beat into us was that your word is your name,’” said Porter’s son David, 59, a retired Navy commander.
Porter passed away July 28 at Tripler Army Medical Center at the age of 88. His funeral ceremony was held at Hawaii State Veterans Cemetery in Kaneohe, Hawaii, Aug. 2. Porter was the first sergeant major of Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe, Hawaii.
Porter, born March 5, 1925, in Hornell, N.Y., joined the Marine Corps as soon as he could. He served in World War II, Korea and two tours to Vietnam.
Porter was a country boy. He attended a one-room schoolhouse and woke up extra early to light the fire for the school’s heater.
At that time, joining the military seemed to be the only way out of his small hometown. He use to joke with his grandchildren about being too poor to ride a horse to school, so he rode a cow.
Porter served more than 30 years in the Marine Corps, witnessing armies and countries rise and fall, nations and people shatter and rebuild before his eyes, but he rarely spoke about it.
“He never told any war stories. You will find that most professional soldiers don’t do that,” David said. “There was no vibrato, he never bragged about it — professional soldier.”
The trials he experienced in life developed his character. Although he rarely spoke of early struggles, he shared wisdom with anyone who cared to listen.
“Grandpa was a leader, he set the tone as who you are supposed to be as a man. Not necessarily military but what kind of husband and father you should be,” said Robert Fredrick Porter II, Porter’s grandson. “I would just call to talk, from war to what it takes to be a good husband.
“He didn’t like to talk about the wars,” he added. “There were certain things you would want to know that only someone like him could answer. He would always answer. They don’t make soldiers like grandpa anymore.”
His family says he was a man of experience and wisdom, a member of the “greatest generation.” He moved forward, focusing his efforts to better those around him.
David recalls one instance where he witnessed his father yelling at some Marines for the first time, he remembers feeling shocked, it was so unlike him.
“You watch TV and you see the sergeant major as rough, at home he was gentle as a lamb,” David said. “If you talk to his Marines, though, they’d probably disagree with you. He never swore, just gentle as a lamb.”
Porter was married to his wife, Flora, for 60 years. Their marriage was destined to be on a long and turbulent road. Deployments kept them separated and “snail mail” kept them frustrated but patient.
Flora made it work. She kept her children busy and happy while they waited for their father to come home.
In Vietnam, the Marines rarely called the states. The most convenient way to reach their families was by radio, only speaking a few moments at a time.
One day a call came over the coms announcing that a Bob Porter had a massive heart attack. Come to find out, there were two Bob Porters — it wasn’t Flora’s husband.
“She is tough. She did not complain. Our household functioned, everything went on,” David said. “My dad knew that my mom didn’t like it, he knew that it was hard on her but he also knew that’s what he wanted, he loved the Marine Corps. To my mom’s credit, she was there every step of the way.”
His Marines were his life. Leading Marines was more than a job to Porter — it was his passion.
The Porters moved duty stations many times. Typically, they traveled cross country in a station wagon, bags packed and car loaded. One time, Bob noticed a man with a sea bag slung over his shoulder walking along the road. He slammed on the breaks and took the Marine where he needed to go.
The example he made as a father, husband and Marine echoed throughout the two generations of his family who survive him.
He was an inspiration for his son David to be commissioned in the Navy and gave grandson Jason Bagwell his first salute in the Air Force.
When David was commissioned into the Navy, Porter swore him into the service alongside the commanding officer of his Reserve Officer’s Training Corps unit. That moment in history is seared into David’s mind as one of the proudest memories of his father.
“Here I am in a pearly white uniform with nothing on it and this guy with campaign ribbons from WWII on and hash marks. I said, ‘Well dad, I guess you have to salute me now,’ and he said, ‘Son, I’d be proud to,’” he said.
Those moments are what Bob lived for. He didn’t live to be rich in a tangible way, he lived his life in a way that paid in love and loyalty.
After Porter’s retirement from 30 years of service, he worked another 35 years with Marine Corps Community Services, displaying his loyalty to the Corps outside the uniform.
Porter had a special spot in his heart for people. He believed people matter. He was known by his family and friends as a man who would give the shirt off his back if he could.
At age 86, his doctor told him to stop working because of his declining health. Porter had worked since he was 13 years old, it was a difficult adjustment for him.
When Porter’s physical condition weakened, Robert remembers sitting around the kitchen table talking to his grandfather. He asked his grandfather if he was going to die and Porter replied, “Marines don’t die, they go to hell and regroup.”
“And he meant it,” Robert said. “Not the hell part, but he really meant it. The Marines back then were so proud. A Marine like him is way too big of a badass to let a heart problem stop him.”
One thing about Porter, which his age could never gain a firm grasp of, was his handshake.
“His grip was an iron grip,” David said. “If you shook his hand you better be ready because he still shook hands like a Marine when he was 80 years old.”
The day before Bob passed away, he shook hands with his nurse, who in turn had to shake his hand out because of the strength of his grip.
Porter is survived by his wife Flora, his three children, Loyd Porter, a head golf professional from San Diego, Debbie Bagwell, who lives in Kailua, Hawaii, and David. He also has five grandchildren and three triplet great granddaughters.
The small-town country boy from N.Y. impacted generation of people by sticking to his values. From being honest with a farmer, fighting for his country and impacting people around him; he stuck to his guns.
“I feel like he spent his whole life fighting for people who couldn’t fight for themselves. When he was retired he helped people who couldn’t help themselves, that’s how they bred them back then,” Robert said.
“Grandpa’s gone but I would like his name to live on and never be forgotten, his and men like him,” Robert added. “They are something special.”