Talk Story: Wes Reber Porter
President and CEO, Damien Memorial School
Before being hired by Damien this year, Porter was a law professor and ran the highly regarded Litigation Center at Golden Gate University School of Law. Prior to that, he spent a decade as a trial lawyer, much of that spent prosecuting major fraud cases as an assistant U.S. attorney and at the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Q: Damien has gone through dramatic changes recently, including going co-ed. Has that been a success?
A: Oh yes. That was in 2012, so we just had our first co-educational graduating class this past May. What’s really cool is that Damien was founded in 1962, so I got to go to a graduation where we celebrated our first graduating class reaching its 50th reunion in the same year we had our first co-educational class graduate.
We had a great group of those 1966 graduates who came back to participate in graduation, all wearing similar shirts. That was against the backdrop of a graduating class that was nearly a 50/50 mix of young men and young women on stage, all intermingled. It presented a dramatic picture of what the school has become as a co-educational institution.
Q: How do you plan to grow Damien’s reputation?
A: As I was reflecting on this job and whether it was going to be the right fit, it was great to look back on my own experience. I was a scholarship basketball player, so another way I plan to get to know the students here is through athletics. I’ll certainly assist and coach and be involved in basketball. One of the ways I’ve already conceived of that is I have some friends who I coach youth groups with in Hawaii. I’m already hosting that group here on Sundays for a basketball clinic, and I truly hope to open it up to other young kids. That will not only get them interested in basketball, but they’ll meet new friends and also get acquainted with our school.
You’ll notice there’s a theme here of coaching and teaching together. I may be more involved and connected with athletics and some of the athletes here than heads of school at other places. That’s because I have things I can teach them and show them. It’s really just a way for me to connect with more of the students coming to school here.
Q: Golden Gate University doesn’t have a highly ranked law school, but you built a very successful mock trial competition there. What does a program like that do for students?
A: We were a lower-tier, regional school. The students didn’t really have choices about where they would go. But, if they showed an interest, if they put time and effort into my stuff, they began to see what they could be as professionals, potentially as trial lawyers. Plus, I’m always of the mind that the skills of a lawyer translate no matter what you choose to do in life. My wife and I are great examples of that. She’s also an attorney. But I’m in education now, and she’s in business. She’s in a boardroom where there’s nothing in her day to day involved with law. But, as I’ve told my students for all these years: If you learn to think this way, if you learn to analyze this way, if you learn to communicate this way, that will translate no matter what you do.
Q: It’s true. Law is often the gateway to the executive suite.
A: If it’s coupled with the right background. For example, working with the SEC, I had some experience on the finance side. That can really be attractive to folks looking for some sort of chief executive officer. There’s a reason a lot of attorneys make their way up on that side of the house. They go from general counsel, to COO, to CEO. As an attorney, you’re always mindful of the legal side of things, because that’s your background. Yet, you also have an analytical mind that can be applied to finances and the numbers. And you’re always careful in the way that you speak and communicate with others to make sure you always present the organization in the best light.
Q: In that sense, maybe it’s not surprising that an attorney would end up as CEO of a private school. But does your law school background have any direct bearing on how you plan to run Damien?
A: This is part of my vision for Damien and how I may be able to contribute individually to the success of the school. I’m going to bring mock trials here. That’s going to be one of the ways I intersect with the students and make sure I don’t stay here in this office. I want to work with the students and get to know them intimately, as I have in the past. I’m going to treat my secondary school students the same way I treated my law students: as if they were professionals. They’re going to learn some of the same things I taught my law students: confidence, communication, persuasion. I’m going to make sure they understand that, no matter what their backgrounds, with the right training and skill set, if they have something to say, people will hear it.
Q: Mock trials do seem like a viable experiential learning niche for a school, much like Mid-Pacific Institute is trying to make a niche of technology.
A: Of course, it’s still largely in the idea phase. But it’s not out of line with our strengths. Damien has had some success with debate and speech in the past. We have a very strong band program. In athletics, we’ve always been competitive. All of that factors in. So mock trials could be something that I bring to the school, just because of my background, and it would allow me to really work with those students. And when you work with 10 students, you get an eye into 650. So, I know what it could become and how it could be a strength for us.
Also, it’s just aspirational now, but, maybe in the summer, Damien could have some kind of academy in which we invite our friends in the public schools, or our friends at some of the other private schools, to join. I’m sure I can convince some of my attorney friends in town to join me as guest faculty to work with a larger swath of kids.”