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Bittle Porterfield, Roanoke businessman and civic leader, dies at 75

Bittle Porterfield, Roanoke businessman and civic leader, dies at 75

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Bittle Porterfield III, a Roanoke businessman and civic leader who helped shape the region’s arts, education and business communities, died Friday. He was 75.

While working as an executive in the beverage industry, Porterfield led numerous boards and organizations through a time of change.

He was president of the Taubman Museum of Art and the Roanoke Valley Chamber of Commerce, and served as chairman of the Roanoke Valley Business Council, the Foundation for Roanoke Valley, the Roanoke Valley Resource Authority and United Way of Roanoke Valley.

“It’s hard to enumerate all the things that Bittle did,” said Jim Sears, president and general manager of Center in the Square. “He was very involved with the community, and he saw that as one of the purposes in his life.”

As president of the center’s governing board, the Western Virginia Foundation for the Arts and Sciences, Porterfield once said the cultural hub “was born at a time when all of the moons and the stars aligned.”

“Hindsight makes us all look like geniuses,” Porterfield told The Roanoke Times in 1997. “I don’t think those people [Center’s creators] would ever have envisioned how well it would work out. You see the opportunity. Not the results.”

Two years later, Porterfield saw another opportunity.

In 1999, when the then-Art Museum of Western Virginia was considering a move from Center in the Square to a larger building in downtown Roanoke, Porterfield used his business acumen and insight to help guide it to its new location, according to one of the current museum’s benefactors, Nick Taubman, former chairman and CEO of Advance Auto Parts.

When Porterfield talked, Taubman said, people tended to listen.

“The joke with Bittle was that he was a man you could look up to, literally,” Taubman said of a leader who stood about 6 feet 3 inches tall.

“He lived up to his height, in the sense that he was a visionary.”

A native of Roanoke, Porterfield graduated from Roanoke College in 1968 and received a master’s of business administration from Virginia Tech three years later.

He served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1970, then devoted most of his career in the beverage industry, leading two family-owned businesses, Porterfield Distributing Co. and Rice Bottling Enterprises.

Porterfield’s advocacy for education led former Gov. Mark Warner to appoint him to Virginia Council of Higher Education. He was also chairman of the North Cross School’s board of trustees, a member of the board of trustees at Hollins University and rector of the Radford University Board of Visitors.

An aviation buff, Porterfield also was chairman of the Roanoke Regional Airport Commission and a member of the Virginia Aviation Board.

“You can’t speak more highly of a person than as someone who wanted to better their community,” Sears said.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at St. John’s Episcopal Church, where Porterfield was a member for more than 45 years.

Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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