KILAUEA, Kauai — Suited in a saffron sweater, Joan Porter reclines into the driver’s seat of her cherry-red Lexus convertible. The afternoon is thick with gloom, a backdrop against which the Kauai community benefactor seems to pop with ebullience and color.
The car is parked on a bluff overlooking an old irrigation dam, a whimsical vestige of Hawaii’s lost plantation era. Joan watches through the windshield as a family with fists full of fishing poles treks down to the spillway, where a secluded swimming hole collects rushing water. Along the way, the family passes a series of small wooden footbridges, a giant Buddha statue and the ashes of Joan’s late husband, E-Trade founder Bill Porter.
“I haven’t been here since he died. I just didn’t want to,” Joan said. “But now I’m here again and it’s wonderful.”
In 2006, the Porters purchased the serene Stone Dam and 500 surrounding acres as an investment property for their 11 grandchildren. They named it Wai Koa Plantation and, rather than let the property sit waiting for its future inheritors, the Porters chose to use the land for the public good. Over the next decade, they came up with a wide range of philanthropic visions, transforming a former guava farm into one of the north shore’s most important community assets.
On the meticulously manicured property the Porters facilitated the building of a five-mile loop trail, dog park, playground, mahogany forest and 18-hole miniature golf course that blends water hazards and other tricky terrain with a tour of Hawaiian ecology and culture. But the property’s crown jewel is the historic Stone Dam, which was erected in 1880 and continues to feed small, nearby farming operations. Once the Porters’ private swimming hole — and Joan’s favorite place to skinny dip — it joins a long list of property features that the Porters have generously opened to the public.
Now, two years after Bill’s death at the age of 86, Joan has decided to leave the island. When she departs this month for a new start in Carmel, California, she will serve no greater role than landlord in a diverse set of community projects she helped birth ranging from the agricultural to the spiritual.
“These are really Bill’s ideas and I’ve been wanting to honor his vision and carry it through. Now that I’ve done that, I feel like it’s OK to step away and let go.” — Joan Porter
Among them are Kauai Fresh Farms, which grows organic tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers in state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouses, and Puukumu, the private, independent middle and high school co-founded by Bill in 2013 to improve north shore education opportunities. Until recently, the Porters also provided the school’s funding.
Then there’s Anaina Hou, “a new gathering place,” which encompasses many of Wai Koa Plantation’s public features. Later this year the nonprofit is set to celebrate the grand opening of a state-of-the-art playground and an indoor-outdoor theater that will host movies, concerts, educational events and hula.
In Bill’s absence, Joan has laid the foundation for several new projects to sprout on Wai Koa’s acreage. She has signed two leases, one of which will house a monastery for the Mother Divine Program, offering transcendental meditation for women. The other lease is for the North Shore Community Foundation to construct new a junior and senior charter high school.
Joan has also devoted herself in the last couple of years to educating the grandchildren who will one day inherit Wai Koa Plantation. In regularly scheduled conference calls and on foot tours of the property, Joan has been schooling them on agriculture, Hawaiian culture and what it means to be a landlord and a steward.
“Before he died I said, ‘Bill, what am I going to do with all of this that you created? I don’t think like you do,’” Joan said. “He said, ‘Joan, you know what the right thing to do is, so just do it. Whatever that is for you. If you don’t want to do it, stop. Just let it grow over. It’s OK.’ For a partner to say that to you is one of the nicest things because it’s unconditional trust. These are really Bill’s ideas and I’ve been wanting to honor his vision and carry it through. Now that I’ve done that, I feel like it’s OK to step away and let go.”
Of all the Porters’ philanthropic activities, making the Stone Dam publicly accessible was one of their proudest deeds. When he was alive, Bill would load up the car with his three Bernese mountain dogs and drive to the dam every day at 3 p.m. Half the time Joan would join him. The dogs would run and Bill would perch himself on a stone wall to smoke a cigar and sip his frappuccino.
“It was a nice time for us to sit together,” Joan said. “He really loved it — I mean, just the beauty of it all. And for me, it was simple: He was here, so I was here. That was the big realization I had: He was called to Kauai. I wasn’t; I was called to him.”
When she realized this during a solo cross-country road trip last autumn, Joan said a divine guidance seemed to set her next steps in motion. Almost immediately she found and purchased a home located a short drive from California’s majestic Big Sur. Then she put her Princeville condo on the market. It sold in two weeks.
As dusk falls and a quartet of songbirds chitter on an overhead tree branch, Joan sparks her car’s ignition and muses about her next act. Perhaps she’ll devote herself more deeply to a spiritual path. Maybe she’ll teach.
“I do feel like something is tapping on my shoulder and I don’t know what it is,” Joan said. “For me, the best part of life is not knowing what’s around the corner. For the first time in my life I’m alone and I’m learning what that really means. I’m learning that I don’t have to be in control. In fact, it’s better if I’m not.”
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