Larry Turner: Remembering A Gentle Giant
By Wiley Henry | Published 12/3/2009 | News
Larry Turner, a lawmaker described as a quiet, gentle, unassuming man, was memorialized on Monday and eulogized on Tuesday at Greater Middle Baptist Church, where he was a longtime member.
Many of Mr. Turner’s friends, including those who served with him in the Tennessee House of Representatives, came to reflect on his convictions, steadfastness, political insight and quiet demeanor.
“He was small in stature, but he was a giant,” said state Rep. Ulysses Jones, D-Memphis, who joined his colleagues in presenting Johnnie Turner, executive director of the local chapter of the NAACP and Turner’s wife of 44 years, with an American flag for his service in the U.S. Air Force.
Mr. Turner, who served 25 years in the legislature, died on Friday, Nov. 27, after a short illness. He was 70.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a former state senator, teamed with Mr. Turner on several bills, including one to restore the voting rights of felons.
“There was nobody more conscientious and honest during the time I served in the House than Larry Turner,” he said.
Johnnie Turner, executive director of the local chapter of the NAACP and wife of state Rep. Larry Turner, is comforted by her son, Larry R. Turner Sr., during Tuesday’s funeral services at Greater Middle Baptist Church. (Photos by Wiley Henry)
State Rep. Ulysses Jones, D-Memphis, joined his colleagues Monday evening in presenting Turner with an American flag for her husband’s service in the U.S. Air Force.
Cohen said the Turners were a power couple just like the late Dr. Vasco Smith (who died in September) and his widow, Maxine, Johnnie Turner’s predecessor at the NAACP. “They were the voices of conscientiousness. They were the power couples in the community,” he said.
Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks, the pastor emeritus of Greater Middle Baptist, noted the comparison as well when he eulogized Mr. Turner in a sermonette titled “The life, the lost, the legacy.”
Hooks spoke about the contributions that Mr. Turner made in politics and his unwavering commitment to his wife, who worked with her husband in the trenches to promote justice, equality and a better quality of life.
Former State Rep. Rufus Jones said Turner’s political wherewithal was tested when he took a stand and voted against stripping the pension of former state lawmaker and judge Ira H. Murphy. Murphy was convicted in 1986 for trying to help a lodge obtain a bingo parlor permit.
“They didn’t call him ‘Red Light Larry’ for nothing,” said Jones, a nickname given to Mr. Turner for his willingness to vote “no” on bills that gave him pause. “Most of our politicians make knee-jerk decisions. Larry took a position and stuck to it.”
State Sen. Jim Kyles, D-Memphis, said this lawmaker had no difficulty making up his mind. “He didn’t have to run a poll to know what was right. He was a solid man,” he said.
Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry, first elected to the House in 1972, referred to him affectionately as a lone ranger. “He was a lone ranger; he was his own man. There were certain issues he was concerned about: employees and consumer affairs, and education. He was a gentleman and a good man.”
‘I miss him so much’
When Johnnie Turner talked about her husband’s political contributions and the services he rendered to his constituents in Dist. 85, she reflected on their 44 years of marriage and the memories they shared.
“I miss him so much,” she said in a phone interview. “We celebrated our 44th wedding anniversary on the 20th of November. He reminded me that he chased me for three years before (the wedding).”
While Mr. Turner was being treated for an unspecified illness at Methodist University Hospital, “he told the doctors that, whatever they do, to give him something so he could get back to work because there were so many issues,” she recalled. “I’ve been going through his papers, and I wish I could send everybody a copy of what he considered his values and principles.”
In a newspaper article, Johnnie Turner said her husband told a reporter that he wasn’t afraid to vote on issues even when there was a fall-out afterwards.
“He said, ‘My constituents voted me in to do the best I can do. …I will do whatever I can in two years for my constituents. I won’t vote on the issues because I’m afraid I won’t get elected.’”
Mr. Turner could see both sides of an issue and didn’t seek the spotlight, his wife said. “Both Republicans and Democrats admired him.”
Johnnie Turner said she just couldn’t imagine what her life would be like without her husband. “He was a loving husband, father and doting grandfather.”
Although Mr. Turner kept a busy schedule traveling back and forth to Nashville, Johnnie Turner said it didn’t stop her husband from bringing her four-dozen roses each week he returned home. “I told him if he had to bring some roses to bring me just a dozen.”
Despite their differences, she said they were a team who fought for civil rights and human rights. “People used to think I had a big mouth and that Larry was so mild-mannered. But how was I going to run the NAACP and the General Assembly too?”
Mr. Turner was smart, she said.
The Turners also attended church regularly. “We never missed a church Sunday,” Johnnie Turner said. “He was, at one time, the youngest deacon at Greater Middle Baptist. … And he didn’t like to be late. He was punctual for everything.”
In addition to his wife, Turner is survived by a son, Larry R. Turner Sr.; four grandchildren; his father: Robert Lee, and stepmother, Pearl Turner of West Memphis, Ark.; six sisters: Shirley Brown and Kellye Braswell, both of Memphis, Joyce Glaspie, Bernice Turner and Phaedra Turner, all of West Memphis, Ark., and Rosalind Ford of Milwaukee, Wis.; two brothers: Tommie L. Brown of Venice, Ill., and Alvin Wiliams of Odenton, Md.; and two uncles: James Allen Sr. and Noah Bond.