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Mr. Bill — The original Servant Leader

Theirs is a friendship you would never see coming.

One is a dignified businessman in his 90s who is one of the wealthiest people in the state.

One is a concert promoter with a prematurely gray beard who raises chickens, goats and tomatoes and makes his living off of rock ‘n’ roll.

One is a major investor and former board member of Coca-Cola who makes gas grills and enjoys hunting quail.

One is a poker player who grows a garden every summer and is ready to help if one of his aging neighbors takes a fall on the way to get his morning newspaper.

You probably know the story of William B. Turner, but most of you don’t know about his longtime friendship with Mike Blackwell, who brought him fresh vegetables and frequently enjoyed early evening conversations on Mr. Bill’s front porch.

When I heard Mr. Bill had died late Monday night at the age of 94, I thought of the obvious things that he has done for our community and our state, for he was a man who used his money wisely.

William Bradley Turner

His family’s legacy is all around us … on our downtown streets … our local college campus … our churches … our concert stages … our relentless river … our financial institutions … and the vending machines that offer us a pause to refresh.

If you don’t know his story, read Chuck Williams’ far-reaching obituary in Tuesday’s Ledger-Enquirer. It’s a keeper.

But in Mr. Bill’s unexpected friendship with Mike Blackwell we see more than a kind, generous man who all of his life has tried to help the community in which he was born. He was a Servant Leader before the term was tossed around so much.

“He was a delightful, precious man,” says Blackwell, who became his neighbor after Mr. Bill and his late wife Sue Marie moved into a private enclave near St. Paul United Methodist Church. “Whatever was going on around here, he always wanted to do more than his share.”

They first met through Blackwell’s late mother-in-law who for many years worked for the Bradley Company and the Bradley Center. Then in 1980 they sat next to each other as members of the first Charter Review Commission.

Blackwell was friends with Turner’s sons and at one time coached one of his granddaughters’ softball teams. Mr. Bill and his were regulars at the young girl’s softball games. His sons and grandchildren enjoyed going to local concerts and Blackwell remembers Mr. Bill showing up when Willie Nelson was in town.

Mike Blackwell promotes concerts, plants massive vegetable gardens and raises all kinds of animals.

“He always liked Willie,” Blackwell says.

The two of them grew closer when the Turners quietly invested in property across from the old St. Elmo Shopping Center on Cherokee Avenue. Blackwell and his wife, the former Dianne Garrard, lived nearby in her parents’ old house.

“Before he bought that land I was raising chickens and they roosted in the woods where Mr. Turner eventually built. Animal Control told me I had to get rid of the chickens but they didn’t understand how hard it would be to get rid of them. A dog catcher finally came out and shot them out of the trees,” Blackwell says.

After the Turners moved in, Blackwell told Mr. Bill about that and asked him if he would care if he got some more chickens. “I don’t care, Mike,” he said. “I can’t hear nothing. If the roosters crow, I can’t hear them anyway.”

David Lewis Sr., who long ago was Turner’s roommate at Georgia Tech, also bought a lot there. So did accountant Clyde Fountain and their friend Phil Swift. It was a tight little neighborhood that was built on friendship and affection.

Blackwell became their unofficial caretaker. If a tree fell, he would help. If they needed fresh vegetables and fruit, he was their produce man. When one of them wanted tickets to see Elton John, Blackwell helped. When Fountain took a fall early one morning, the CPA’s wife called Blackwell who came quickly and helped him get inside.

The four families enjoyed each other’s company and ultimately they mourned together. Sue Marie Turner passed away. So did Lewis and then Fountain. Now it’s Mr. Bill.

“I’ll miss him,” says Blackwell, who has been a concert promoter since he was a student at what was then Columbus College. “He would invite me to come down and sit on his porch and enjoy a glass of wine with him. I drank beer, not wine, but he knew that. Our politics were also different, but we enjoyed some wonderful conversations.”

Sometimes he would run up on Turner and another group of friends who gathered on Thursdays at Rose Hill Sea Food. It was high profile Columbus business people from the same generation: Bill Turner, Hooper Turner, John Kinnett, Kyle Spencer and a few others. They had a reserved table in the corner.

One by one by one, the old friends have passed away or have grown too old to drive, A thoughtful Brad Turner began to stop by Rose Hill on Thursdays so he could deliver a plate of fish to his father.

That tradition ends this week for Thursday is the day William B. Turner will be buried in a private service.

Blackwell will miss going on quail hunts and those quiet moments with his neighbor on the porch. More than anything he will miss his friend, not because he was a mover-and-shaker, but because he was just plain Mr. Bill.

There were unspoken motives behind their long-standing friendship. “One day I’m gonna be that old,” Blackwell says, “and I sure hope somebody will look after me.”

 

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Don Kent

    August 1, 2017 at 7:17 pm

    Great read~ Rip, Mr Bill ~

  2. John Tongret

    August 1, 2017 at 9:27 pm

    Thank you, Richard. I enjoyed this story. I will miss him but I am blessed and a better man for having known him.

  3. Jimmi Pate

    August 1, 2017 at 9:50 pm

    Robyn Pate

  4. Ricky Steele

    August 1, 2017 at 10:10 pm

    Thank you for the insightful article about Mr. Turner, his impact on so many lives and his relationship with my old friend, Mike Blackwell.

    I also thank you for asking me earlier this evening to share a few of my stories about Mr. Turner from the past 50 years. Being a sales person and the son of a sales person, I went long even after I cut out a few stories that I wanted to include. 🙂

    I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Turner when I was 10 or 11 shortly after Mr. Turner and a few other Columbus business people joined my father in buying the Ralston Hotel in 1962 or so. Mr. Turner and dad did a number of business deals over the years and there is no one my dad loved more or respected more in Columbus than Mr. Turner. I am sure Mr. Turner’s support of my dad opened many doors for him and created an opportunity for dad to achieve success in Columbus as well. In their second year of owning the Ralston together, they decided to integrate the hotel being the first major property in Columbus and one of the first in the South to do this on their own accord.

    I guess it was somewhere in 1968 or so as a Junior in high school when I began visiting Mr. Turner in his office to seek his advice, mentoring and direction for my life. I was always greeted with a hug and an original small bottle of Coca-Cola. I remember Mr. Turner would listen intently and create options on ways to think about the problem. I don’t recall him ever telling me to do this or to do that. He was understanding and he was kind and we often ended our time together with a short prayer. Mr. Turner never rushed our time together and often when I would leave, there would be a waiting room filled with important Columbus business leaders in suits standing in line for their turn with Mr. Turner. I am sure they received a bottle of Coca-Cola and great wisdom as well.

    In 1975, I felt led to open Columbus Youth Ministry. The first call I made was to Mr. Turner. We met in his office and he quickly agreed to be the Chairman of our Board. When we began to build out the Alpha & Omega on Warm Springs Road, Mr. Turner told me to go to what I think if I remember correctly was Columbus Supply although that may not be the right name. It was the WC Bradley retail hardware store on Columbus Manchester Expressway. Mr. Turner set up an account in his name for us and he told us to buy whatever we needed to do the construction. Many, many lives were impacted through our effort all thanks again to Mr. Anonymous. Mr. and Mrs. Turner would often come in for dinner and to listen to the entertainers who would perform on the weekends.

    Years later when I was in Atlanta running Sun Belt Limousines, I was fortunate to win the Coca-Cola account. One day we were driving the Board of Coca-Cola from their Board meeting in Delaware to the home office on North Avenue. I was in the neighborhood of the airport so I dropped in to make sure all the cars were on time and the drivers were in position. While I was there, the Coca-Cola jets arrived. The Board members, who were and still are a Who’s Who of the business world, were deplaning when I spotted Mr. Turner and he spotted me. He quickly moved past a few board members to where I was standing. Mr. Turner gave me a huge hug, his gracious smile and we talked for 10 minutes. I can’t imagine what the Coca-Cola Chairman, Mr. Roberto Goizueta, Major League Baseball Commissioner, Mr. Peter Ueberroth or any of the other Board members were thinking about Mr. William B. Turner, grandson of the first Chairman of the Board of the Coca-Cola Company hugging and talking to the limo guy but Mr. Turner could have cared less. I did not need my car to drive back to my office because I was floating on a cloud. 🙂

    I moved to Atlanta in 1979 but did my best to visit with Mr. Turner whenever his trusty gatekeeper, Phyllis, could work me in. One day I was to meet Mr. Turner and when I arrived there were a lot of people wearing suits, sunglasses and ear pieces. I knew from my time working for President Carter that they were security and perhaps even Secret Service. Mr. Turner did not short change our time together and as I left his office, Mrs. Rosalynn Carter entered to also meet with Mr. Turner. He was no respecter of persons. I was just as important to him as his favorite car hop at the Varsity while he attended Georgia Tech or the wife of the President of the United States.

    I could tell many more stories about my visits to Mr. Turner’s and the advice he freely shared with me as could many of you. One of the most touching times we were together was on March 17th, 2002 about 5 hours after my father died at home on Hilton Avenue. Mom, me and my siblings were sitting in dad’s study crying, laughing about some of dad’s antics and planning his funeral when the doorbell rang. I went to the door and Mr. and Mrs. Turner were standing there having walked down Hilton Avenue from their home. We exchanged hugs and Mrs. Turner had a beautiful vase of her prized roses for my mother who had come out to join us. My mother cried and was very grateful. She mentioned their visit and Mrs. Turner’s roses at least 20 times before she died just 5 months later. That was the kindness of the Turner family. It was an honor to have Mr. and Mrs. Turner at both of their funeral services.

    I am sure God was pleased and that He smiled often as He observed the life and the legacy of Mr. William B. Turner.

    • Connie Kilgore

      August 2, 2017 at 4:49 pm

      Well Said…

  5. Connie Kilgore

    August 2, 2017 at 4:48 pm

    Columbus was blessed to have Mr. Turner as a native son.We are all better because of him….

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