OREM — He’s humble, smart, motivated, engaged, active and very, very old.
Don Porter is an interesting guy. It’s tough to weigh what is more impressive: that he golfs every week, that he's possibly one of the longest survivors of heart bypass surgery, or that he says he once shook the hand of the famous outlaw Butch Cassidy.
This week at Cascade Fairways in Orem, Porter took off down the fairway, knocking golf balls toward greens, hitting chips and making putts. It was his 97th birthday. The next day, he took off to his weekly night of dancing at the Heritage Center in Murray.
One of his favorite things to say when he greets people is this salutation: “You just shook the hand that shook the hand of Butch Cassidy.” After we met this week, he told me: “You can wash your hand if you want to, but it did touch the hand of Butch.”
Don usually shoots a round of nine holes in the 50s and when he’s on, he scores in the high 40s. He plays in the Cascade Senior Men’s Association, where he’s a popular figure and friend to many. When he doesn’t show up, people ask his son, J. Porter, where he’s at and if he’s OK.
This past week, Don got off to a fine start to his round, then faded. He usually hits the ball about 150 yards and he is allowed to tee up his shots beyond the tee box. Well, for heck’s sake, he is 97.
“Oh, I had a bad time. I was tired. I was working on my sprinkling system. I had one sprinkler that wasn’t working,” said Don. “I had a few good holes. I parred No. 14, then I got to where I couldn’t hit the ball. It was terrible.”
Well, Don, don’t take it too hard. Phil Mickelson felt the same way when he missed the cut at The Players Championship last week.
On Thursday, Don made his trek to the Murray Heritage Center to go dancing. “There’s about 80 to 100 people who show up,” he said. “I used to dance every tune, but now I dance about half of them.” His favorite song is “Calcutta” performed by Lawrence Welk and his orchestra. Of course.
The legendary Butch Cassidy is believed to have died in 1908 in Bolivia, where he fled from U.S. authorities. Porter begs to differ. He says he met Cassidy in his later years in 1924 at the ranch of Porter's grandfather in Mountain View, Wyo., when Porter was 9 years old.
Cassidy and Porter’s grandfather, John T. Fields, were boyhood pals growing up in the Circleville and Beaver areas of Southern Utah, Porter says. They played marbles together, according to Porter. He says Cassidy made a visit that lasted about an hour that day at the ranch.
Grandpa Fields told Don to wait outside and do some chores. “My grandma cooked Butch a steak, but she was nervous.”
When Cassidy went to leave, it was Don’s job to open the gate. Cassidy rode toward him on a horse. “He had a big gun on his hip and a rifle on his saddle. It wasn’t unusual to see people wearing a gun, but having a rifle on your saddle wasn’t something you saw every day,” remembers Don.
“It was a long time ago, but Cassidy was an old man and his face was whiskered," Porter says. "He didn’t look at me, but he kept his eyes down the dirt road and looked back and forth. Before he left, he reached his hand down and shook my hand and said, 'You have a fine grandpa and grandma.'"
And with that, Butch Cassidy left the ranch.
Don Porter grew up and operated a gas station for 25 years near Lyman, Wyo. He was instrumental in bringing television to Bridger Valley and helped establish a translator station for TV to Little America near I-80 in Wyoming. He later worked at Geneva Steel in Vineyard near Orem until the plant shut down.
When Don was 57, he had a heart attack and underwent double bypass heart surgery. “He may be the oldest living bypass surgery survivor, at some 47 years," says his son J. He’s had a couple of other heart attacks.
"On his 90th birthday, he had a cardiac arrest, which isn’t a heart attack. We had been golfing on May 15 and it was really hot that day and he hadn’t had any water.”
When the father and son got home and Don changed clothes, he began shaking and fell to the floor. His family thought he was dead.
At the hospital, doctors told the family their father may not make it and they might consider funeral plans. J. and others stayed with him through the night. After taking a break, J. came into the hospital room and his father was sitting up asked what was going on. They told him he’d had a cardiac arrest.
“What happened? Beats me,” Don said. He repeated that minutes later, “What happened? Beats me?"
Don had a mini-stroke a few years ago but survived with no major problems. “He dances; he likes to play bottle pool; and has loved to hunt and fish. He’s served two LDS missions and goes to church every Sunday."
After his bypass surgery, a doctor friend told J. he ought to buy his then 57-year-old father some golf clubs.
“He could die out there,” said J.
“At least he would be having fun and that would be better than sitting home on the couch waiting to die,” said the doctor.
So J. went out and bought his father some clubs.Comment on this story
“He likes to play but really doesn’t like to compete because it gets him all nervous,” said J., who is 74.
The father and son like to explore for gold in Arizona. Don has invented his own gold trap and they’ve pulled out an ounce and a half of gold this past year or so.
But the real gold is already found in a long life lived well.
Golf, gold, dancing and tales of Butch Cassidy?
It doesn’t get any better than that.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.