Ed Von der Porten, Santa Rosa teacher and maritime historian, dies at 84
Edward Paul Von der Porten, a former Santa Rosa High School teacher and maritime historian, dedicated six decades of work to stout defense of his premise that Sir Francis Drake’s famous 1579 landing in California was at Drakes Bay in the Point Reyes National Seashore.
Von der Porten, who moved from Santa Rosa to San Francisco in 1987, died Monday night from strokes following surgery at a San Francisco hospital. ?He was 84.
Against all challenges, which continue to come from points up and down the West Coast, Von der Porten insisted that Drake, the English pirate who was hauling a fortune in pilfered Spanish treasure, made landfall in a cove at the mouth of Drakes Estero and remained for 36 days to repair his leaking vessel, the Golden Hind.
When the National Park Service deemed the bay a national historic landmark in 2012, Von der Porten considered it vindication, even as the federal agency called it “the most likely site” of Drake’s landing and the first contact between Europeans and California native peoples.
Drakes Bay would stand as the location “until somebody can prove otherwise,” he said at the time.
Born to German immigrant parents in New York City, Von der Porten came to his lifelong interest in maritime events growing up in the World War II harbor city and then moving with his parents to the West Coast port of San Francisco.
His father’s proudest achievement, said his son, Michael Von der Porten of Santa Rosa, was bringing multiple disciplines together in the field of maritime history.
“He was there from the beginning,” his son said.
The elder Von der Porten’s study of 16th century Chinese porcelain fragments found at Drakes Bay led years later to the discovery, by means of similar fragments on a remote beach in Baja California, to the wreck site of a Spanish galleon.
A book on the Mexican expeditions is pending, his son said, as is a manuscript on Von der Porten’s work to refute the hoax involving Drake’s so-called “plate of brass,” a forgery created in the 1930s as a joke by a group of amateur historians.
Von der Porten made major contributions to education and culture in Santa Rosa after earning a bachelor’s degree in ?history from San Francisco State University in 1955. He and the late Saryl Corrick, a member of a Santa Rosa family, met at the school and married in 1954.
In 1958, the couple moved into her parents’ former home in the Grace Tract neighborhood.
He taught at Cook Junior High for a year and then at Santa Rosa High School, where he taught U.S. history, American government, English, geography and journalism until 1985.
His lessons on World War II Germany included a large Nazi flag and German military music in the classroom. To teach the dangerous power of propaganda and authoritarian ideology, his son said, Von der Porten challenged students with the question: “Why did you sit down and pay attention today?”
Following up that thesis for his master’s degree earned in 1965 at San Francisco State, Von Der Porten visited surviving Navy admirals and captains in Germany and wrote a book, “The German Navy in WWII,” with an introduction by Grand Adm. Karl Doenitz.
Lee Torliatt, an author who taught at Santa Rosa High in the 1960s, said Von der Porten was “a good scholar” who strongly adhered to his findings.
“Once he was convinced he was on the right track he stuck with it,” Torliatt said. “Ed was intense: that’s a good thing.”
Von der Porten began teaching Santa Rosa Junior College night classes in 1961, and subsequently developed an introductory archaeology class and field school aimed at protecting Native American artifacts in what was to become the Point Reyes National Seashore.
He remained director of the SRJC archaeological program until 1982 and continued as a guest lecturer until 2004.
Von der Porten served as a founding designer of the Sonoma County Museum, which opened in 1985 inside the remodeled Post Office building.
“He was extremely passionate about museums, and knowledgeable as well,” said Eric Stanley, associate director of the facility that is now the Museums of Sonoma County.
He also worked as director of the Treasure Island Museum from 1985 to 1992 and assisted nearly 20 museums in their work, his son said.
An expert model builder, Von der Porten spent 2,300 hours constructing a large-scale model of the San Juan, a 16th century galleon discovered substantially intact in Red Bay, Canada.
When the World War II Liberty ship Jeremiah O’Brien, docked in San Francisco, paid a visit to England and France in 1994, Von der Porten and his wife met the ship there and managed its gift shop.
The Von der Portens were married for 56 years when Saryl died in 2011.
Michael Von der Porten said he and his wife, Elaine, traveled with his father in recent years.
“There was always something interesting and exciting in his life, which he was sharing with other people,” he said.
In addition to his son, Von der Porten is survived by four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Services will be held at a date to be announced.
Memorial donations may be made to the Drake Navigators Guild, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien National Liberty Ship Memorial, the Society for California Archaeology or the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @guykovner.