A. Alex Porter, Jr. ’60

A. Alex Porter, a member of the Wall Street generation that popularized the hedge fund and himself a successful practitioner of that now-familiar investing craft, died at his farm in Davidson, N.C. He was 75. The cause was cancer, according to his sister, Sarah Porter Boehmler.

When Porter landed a tryout with the money-management firm of A.W. Jones & Co. in 1967, hedge funds were still enveloped in mystery. Alfred Winslow Jones, the founding partner of the firm, had originated the idea in the 1940s. Such a fund would be “hedged.” It would buy some stocks, expecting them to go up, and sell others short, expecting them to go down. It would employ reasonable amounts of margin debt to amplify its returns. It would charge its investors a 1 percent management fee and a 20 percent share of the profits. A properly managed hedge fund would thus be in a position to deliver satisfactory returns in bull and bear markets alike, or so Jones reasoned.

A probationary hire, Porter was asked to invest one million imaginary dollars. He promptly lost them. Given a second chance — not the usual policy at Jones — he succeeded in causing his make-believe pile to appreciate, after which he was hired for keeps.

Following a stint at the firm of Sanford C. Bernstein in the early 1970s, Porter founded his own money-management business in 1976. As he often told the story, there were 30 people on whom he was sure he could depend for an initial investment. Just three wound up writing a check, and they contributed a grand total of $360,000. The holdouts presently had cause to regret their reluctance. Between 1976 and 1993, Porter’s fund, which he called “Amici,” generated a net compound annual return on the order of 20 percent. Amici Capital today manages $2.2 billion.

Porter was born in Charlotte, N.C. in 1938, attended the Woodberry Forest School in Virginia and was admitted to Davidson College, Davidson, N.C. on a football scholarship. He played guard and end and wrestled besides, lettering in football for three years and wrestling for four. An English major, he graduated in 1960.

Porter wrestled competitively into his fifties. He continued to read and write until his death.  He died before completing a book-length critical study of Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot.” He sponsored (always anonymously) numerous lecture series and scholarships at Davidson and served on the boards of the Library of America, and The John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. He wrote poetry, painted and played the guitar. His intellectual interests ranged widely including Biblical scholarship and cryptology.

Porter was a voracious and competitive reader. “Have you seen the new issue of the Albanian Quarterly Journal of Ethnic Anthropology”? he might begin a conversation. Almost invariably, one had not. “Well,” Porter would reply, “there’s a fascinating essay on page 58 concerning . . . . ”

In the prime of his wrestling career, Porter stood 6 feet 2 inches tall, weighed 220 pounds, could bench-press 350 pounds, and wore a pony tail. His wrestling friends were just as bemused by his painting and poetry as his fellow aesthetes were by the matches he fought with large and ferocious-looking opponents.

On Wall Street, Porter was known as a gentle and courteous giant. In his company, one invariably felt his hand on one’s shoulder at a doorway; Porter insisted on entering second. He had an abhorrence of foul language and would walk out of a bar rather than be subjected to it.

The spoken and written word ever fascinated him. He quoted from a seemingly infinite personal store of reading, historical anecdote and country-and-western song lyrics. A Porter email of a few years back began characteristically: “The Everly Brothers had a song entitled `Nobody Calls from Las Vegas Just to Say Hello.’ Similarly, no one writes mid-afternoon just to say `Hello.’ So I’m writing to ask a favor. . . .”

Porter had a special gift of friendship and accounted himself rich on that score alone. Everyone seemed to know him, including — unexpectedly — such luminaries as the author Robert Caro and the cabaret singer Bobby Short. These acquaintances, which others might treat as a kind of social currency, Porter never mentioned. “I am unaware,” relates a friend and fellow money manager, Michael Harkins, “of any expression in the English language for someone who does not drop names, and, of course, in New York there is no demand for it, except in the singular case of Alex Porter.”

Porter was a longtime trustee of his beloved Davidson College and of Queens University of Charlotte. Among others, he served on the boards of Rollcast Energy, Distribution Technology, SLM Corp., the Library of America, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. In addition to his sister, he is survived by his nieces Elizabeth Anne Boehmler and Alexis Porter Boehmler of New York City, and Jean B. Reynolds and her children Sarah Hollingsworth Reynolds and Margaret Grier Reynolds of Haverford, Pennsylvania.

Visitation will be held on Friday, April 25, 2014, from 4 p.m. – 7 p.m. at the home of Sarah and Bill Boehmler. A service to celebrate his life will be held at Davidson College Presbyterian Church on Saturday, April 26 at 1:00 pm.


2 Replies to “A. Alex Porter, Jr. ’60”

  1. What a nice testimonial to the memory of a truly great and complicated man. I will never forget his graciousness or his intellectual curiosity. The obituary refernce to an Albanian journal of anthropology might sound over the top but all of us who knew him know it isn’t much of an exaggeration. “Do you know about Vancomycin?” a recent Alex email began. “i certainly did not, but I love the poem.” What followed was a poem about the antibiotic in the London Review of Books. My favorite story like that though was in the first few weeks of working with Alex. He was sitting at a computer in the bullpen area of the firm after hours. When he saw me passing by he said “You know some Italian don’t you? Do you know what the line ‘E come vivo. Vivo.’ means?” I didn’t (as the obituary suggested this was often the case) so he began a discussion of the opera La Boheme, the romantic struggles of the characters and the line above which translates to “And how do I live. I live.” In Alex’s final few weeks, I thought a lot about that line and the fact that it captured Alex’s own non-traditional life. He lived. With tremendous love and spirit and hard work, and according to his own patchwork of principles. We will miss him every day.

    1. Though my last contact with Alex was more than 20 years ago, in reading these touching and insightful tributes I see that my memories are in sync with those who knew him more recently or longer.

      I recall him telling me how he was somewhat taken aback when he first arrived in New York and the Wall Street firms were looking for Ivy League grads and did not duly consider the distinction of a Davidson degree. (He sure showed them!) I think he appreciated that as a Northerner, I not only knew of Davidson, but also knew that their then Athletic Director (and alum)had been the basketball coach at my Alma Mater (Virginia).

      In 1993 during “The Storm of the Century,” Alex (then in his fifties) was in Locust Valley and I can still see and hear his boyish glee as he ran out into the raging storm with a glass to scoop up the fresh snow for a “snowball” cocktail.

      Erudite, thoughtful, sensitive, courtly and FUN. Alex was a true Southern Gentleman and yet a champion in a competitive industry and town not noted for gentility. Such a charming anomaly! I remember him saying he loved being Southern, and he was to the core. I only learned of his passing a few days ago and I am very saddened that he is no longer of this earth. But I am heartened at the considerable legacy he leaves behind and in knowing that Heaven is now a bit more joyous place.

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