John B. Turner, Ph.D., whose career in social work spanned more than 40 years and whose efforts and leadership helped earn national recognition for the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, died on Friday, Jan. 30. He was 86.
Turner, a writer, scholar and teacher who devoted his life to community organization, social activism and social work education, had been recovering from a fall last year.
Turner joined the UNC faculty in 1974 as the William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor of Social Work. He was named school dean in 1981 — becoming the first African-American dean at the University — and remained in the position until his retirement in 1992. Turner is largely credited for mapping out the graduate program’s road to prominence, including the construction of a $10 million building in Chapel Hill. That site — the school’s current home — still bears his name today and was the first academic building on campus to be named for an African-American; it also acknowledges the services of John A. “Jack” Tate, a Charlotte businessman and longtime social justice advocate who died late last year, and the late Charles Kuralt, an award-winning TV journalist.
Turner, who developed the school’s first development office and worked diligently to broaden the minority student presence, earned national and international honors over the course of his career.
“John was a pioneer in social work education and at UNC in so many ways,” said current social work Dean Jack Richman, who was hired by Turner in 1983 as an assistant dean. “Even through his retired years, John remained connected and involved in the school. We often met for lunch, and he offered his advice and counsel concerning the development and life of the school. I will miss Dean Turner as will everyone who had the good fortune to know and work with him.”
A native of Fort Valley, Ga., Turner studied engineering, played football and sang in a quartet at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, before deciding that he wanted to be a pilot. During World War II, he trained as one of the country’s first black aviation cadets at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama.
According to media reports, Turner, a first pilot of a B-25 bomber crew, was never deployed overseas but still spent much of his time in the air, flying practice rounds across the country. That experience allowed him to see black communities struggling and fueled his eventual passion for social work.
Turner earned his doctoral degree in social work at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and later became Case’s dean of applied social sciences. He also ventured into politics, becoming the first black city commissioner in East Cleveland.
Turner developed an illustrious career as an academic consultant, working over the years for the National Urban League as well as for international organizations, including the International Research Programs in Cairo, Egypt and as a visiting professor and consultant to the University of Minia in Egypt. He was a former member and chairman of the International Council on Social Welfare, was a charter member of the International Association of Applied Social Scientists and a member of the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine.
Over his career, Turner established himself as a “bridge builder” between government leaders and service providers, said Dennis Orthner, a UNC social work professor and an associate director for policy development and analysis at the school’s Jordan Institute for Families.
“John was an incredible scholar of and advocate for high quality and effective human services,” Orthner said. “I learned so much from him in watching him work all sides of the debate on welfare reform, child welfare, adult services and so on.”
Respected and admired for his pioneering work and leadership, Turner was equally endeared for his warmth, eloquence and charm, said Anna Scheyett, the school’s associate dean for academic affairs. “He was dean when I was a student, and I just remember that he made a huge effort to get to know each student and make them feel special,” she said.
But Turner may best be remembered for his tenacity in helping the school develop into one of the Top 10 social work graduate programs in the country. He advocated for the creation of a doctoral program and in the late 1980s, supported a $5 million fund-raising campaign – a previously unheard of amount for the school which was largely unknown at the time.
His unwavering support and joint efforts with Tate and Kuralt also helped persuade state lawmakers to approve funding for the construction of a five-story, 75,000-square-foot building, enabling the school to move its cluster of offices into one building on Pittsboro Street in the health affairs area of campus.
“John was a brilliant, caring and resourceful man,” said Maeda Galinsky, a Kenan Distinguished Professor at the school. “He worked tirelessly to involve the community in the school, to raise money, and to convince campus decision makers of our need for a building which would bring all of our teaching, research and service components together.”
Turner authored numerous articles and books and served as editor and chief of the 17th edition of the “Encyclopedia of Social Work.” He was honored in 2007 with the naming of a new professorship at the school — the Sandra Reeves Spears and John B. Turner Distinguished Professorship.
Turner is survived by his wife of 61 years, Marian Wilson Turner, and their two children: son Charles Brister Turner of Carrboro and daughter Marian Turner Hopkins, and her husband Jonathan J. Hopkins of Chapel Hill; grandson Ian Turner Hopkins; Turner’s sister, Virginia Turner Dowell; and many cousins, grandnephews and nieces, and great-grandnephews and nieces.
Visitation services will be Wednesday from 6-9 p.m. at Walker’s Funeral Home, 120 W. Franklin St. in Chapel Hill. Funeral services will be Thursday at 11 a.m. at First Baptist Church, 106 N. Roberson St. in Chapel Hill.
The family would appreciate memorial contributions to: The UNC School of Social Work, John Turner Doctoral Fellowship Fund, c/o The UNC School of Social Work Office of Development, CB# 3550, 325 Pittsboro Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27599.
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