Arlette Lambert Porter

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Arlette Lambert Porter – BS pure Mathematics – Wake Forest 1965

Mother of Andrea Porter Kittrell – BS Chemistry – Duke 1989; MD Wake Forest 1993

Grandmother of Allie, Anna Claire & Elizabeth Kittrell – future Duke or WFU grads!

I was accepted into the Wake Forest English honors curriculum with full intention of becoming an English major, due to not knowing what I really wanted “to be”.   Very soon I was inspired by a couple of outstanding math professors…..Marcellus Waddill and Ivey Gentry, the department head…. in the basic level math courses that were required of all students.  I found myself enrolling in advanced level mathematics, just because I wanted to hear more from them.  I progressed through the upper level mathematics courses, getting a teaching certificate also because I could not envision any practical application of my math degree outside academics. I grew up in a small rural town and basically had little knowledge of the big world “out there”.  Between my junior and senior years, Dr. Gentry arranged for me to work a summer internship at Bell Telephone Laboratories.  I was able to graduate a semester early in the top 10 in my class with membership in Pi Mu Epsilon honor math society and a Phi Beta Kappa key.

Upon graduation, I was offered a position with Bell Labs in Winston-Salem, NC and a real adventure was launched.  This introduced me to the world of big-time computers.  At this time Wake had no computer science degree.  In fact, only one course even remotely related to computers was offered and I didn’t take advantage of it, being drawn more to the pure theoretical courses.  But Bell Labs offered an extension program in house from North Carolina State University.  This university in the Research Triangle of North Carolina was in the forefront of computer and software technology.  From this beginning, I have worked continuously except for one 2-year hiatus. I have worked in defense requiring high level security clearance (the Nike X space project developed in large part at Bell Labs). As life moved me elsewhere, I changed hats and worked at Furman University in Greenville SC where I wrote one of the first exam-grading programs.  From there it was back to Bell Labs, this time in Greensboro NC, where I was “the” programmer for a whole department of electrical engineers developing telephone technology.  Later after a short break to have my second child, I set up my own free lance business and had projects ranging from petroleum transport to government tax applications to manufacturing. After contracting to one company for 5 years, I finally accepted employment from the L S Starrett Company, the North Carolina branch of an international tool company.  I have moved through the ranks at this company, touching every facet of its operation from manufacturing and inventory controls to sales to purchasing to HR and have been the IT director of the NC branch for 15 years.

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My computer-oriented career has taken very much a “horse and buggy” to the “space age” course.  When I first began at Bell Labs, the mainframe computers filled a large room.  The reel-to-reel tape bank that stored all the data filled an even large room.  All programs were written out manually on a formatted code sheet which was turned over to key punch operators (all of whom were deaf because the noise generated by the machines in the room where they worked was unbearable for a hearing person).  I was a programmer but never had to touch a computer.  These large computers were utilized by only the largest businesses of the time.

Technology progressed rapidly and within a matter of a few years the mini-computer was born.  These brought a closer relationship between the programmer and the computer for now the programmer and the operator became one.  I was sent by Bell Labs to Palo Alto CA for weeks of training on such a computer, as can be seen in this photo.  This particular mini-computer was connected to live telephone lines where testing was done to pinpoint exactly the location of line faults from a central office, allowing a repair crew to be dispatched to the exact location of a problem.  While I had no electrical engineering knowledge, I was well suited to translating the engineer’s problem solving equations into a language that the computer could process and lend accurate results.

 I have evolved with the technology and progressed from programmer to systems analyst to director of information systems for my branch of this world-wide company.  The advent of the internet and web-based networking allow me to now sit at my desk and transfer data all around the world in a matter of seconds.  I have evolved with the technology and progressed from programmer to systems analyst to director of information systems for my branch of this world-wide company.  It is not at all unusual for me to communicate with people from Brazil, Scotland, China, Mexico and Canada, in addition to people throughout the US on any given day.

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Today the volume of data handled daily has exploded and the physical requirements to handle the data bears no resemblance to the computers that began my journey.  These ultra-small devices can hold far more data than the huge roomful of computers held when I first began working with them.

While I never set out to have a computer-oriented career, I am happy with the direction my career has taken.  The foundation I received in the Mathematics Department at Wake Forest, particularly the logic-based mathematics, has held me in good stead with every new challenge I’ve faced.  There has never been a dull minute in my work at any level.  My jobs have afforded me mental stimulation and challenge, opportunities to work with interesting people all over the world, and opportunities to travel extensively.  While it has never afforded me a financial windfall, it has provided me very reliable income that has allowed me to contribute to society.  I was able to launch the medical career of a former husband, support myself and daughter at a time when it became necessary, and educate both my two children through advanced degrees.  It was my pleasure as a mother to be able to be the one who always provided the extras for them in their childhood (like summers at Duke TIP) while my husband provided for all the necessities of life for us all.  And my mathematics-based career has so far been a stable force in the sometimes challenging economic times that we face.  So here I am, 70 years old, still working and learning and contributing and enjoying it, thanks to the unexpected direction my life took when I was inspired in the mathematics classrooms of Wake Forest.

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One Response to Arlette Lambert Porter

  1. Sandy Kizior says:

    What a great story.

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