Inside a packed St. Luke United Methodist Church where he taught Sunday School for more than 60 years, William Bradley Turner was remembered and honored Thursday morning by family, friends and associates.
The Rev. Robert Beckum and Dr. Ron King turned the pages of Turner’s 94 years with the precision, spiritual understanding and wit of ministers. But Betsy Covington, who was a member of Turner’s class in the late 1970s and later, with her husband, taught high school students alongside him, struck at the core of the man’s impact.
She didn’t talk about the successful retired chairman of the W.C. Bradley Co. or the longtime member of the Coca-Cola board of directors. She didn’t talk about his great family wealth or how he was charged at an early age by his grandfather, W.C. Bradley, to carry the torch. And she didn’t mention the philanthropic efforts of the Bradley-Turner Foundation, which under Turner’s direction helped to alter the landscape of Columbus.
Instead, she talked about Mr. Bill Turner the Sunday School teacher, the lessons he imparted, and the love he had for Christ and for those he taught from the late 1940s until well into the 21st century.
Covington, now the president and chief executive officer of the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley, asked all of those who had attended Turner’s Sunday school classes to stand. People rose from nearly every pew in the packed main sanctuary in the downtown church. They spanned at least three generations.
In all, a quarter of the more than 800 people were standing, illustrating the impact Turner had on his church and his community.
“That’s a lot of impact,” Covington said. “What an amazing opportunity we were given, and what a deep legacy is now ours to carry.”
Turner died late Monday at his midtown Columbus home. He was buried next to his wife of 65 years, Sue Marie, on a rainy Thursday morning before the memorial service. The private graveside service at Parkhill Cemetery was attended by his five surviving children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
While the family was saying its good-byes at the cemetery, the church started filling up an hour and a half before the service, and people lined the walls a half hour before it started.
The leaders, past and present, of the city’s major companies and institutions — including W.C. Bradley Co., Synovus, TSYS, Aflac and Columbus State University — were in attendance.
“Great people are a composite of opposites, and Bill was no different,” Beckum said.
King, a friend and confidant of Turner’s the last three decades in his role as President of The Pastoral Institute, talked about Turner’s self awareness.
“He believed increasing our self-awareness is important for all of us,” King said. “He came to believe that our relationships with God, our families, our friends and others are ultimately the most important things in life.”
Turner would use the predawn hours for reflection and prayer, King said. Before the day started, Turner wrote his thoughts on yellow legal pads — hundreds of them over the years.
“He became convinced that the ‘Deadly P’s’ of life can destroy a person and all their relationships,” King said. “... Bill’s list of ‘Deadly P’s’ include pride, prejudice, position, popularity, possessions and power. All of us who knew Bill either through the family, church, company, community or through his book know that Bill struggled with his ego, his sense of entitlement and his desire to be appreciated and needed. He wrestled with pride, prejudice, position, popularity, possessions and power.”
Bill Turner saw leadership as an opportunity for service and not an opportunity for gaining power, King said.
“Bill never joined the Rotary Club, and we had several conversations about this over a Coke when I would visit him in his office at the Bradley Company,” King said. “I always thought he would have made a great Rotarian. Rotary’s motto is ‘Service Above Self,’ and Bill Turner spent much of his life putting service above self. Bill was convinced that servant leadership must be grounded in love that is a spiritual gift.”
There were moments of levity. Beckum, who came to St. Luke in 2011, told of a sermon in which he was talking about stewardship. He made a joke about scheduling the stewardship sermon around the college football schedules, especially the University of Georgia.
“But you don’t have to really schedule it around Georgia Tech,” the preacher joked. Turner, a proud Georgia Tech graduate, did not find it amusing.
“He was sitting in the back of the church and after the service he made his way through the crowd and said, ‘Good sermon, but I didn’t much appreciate that part about Georgia Tech,” Beckum said. “I know you were joking, and it’s OK as long you know we can get another preacher.”
Both men laughed, one a little more nervously than the other.
Covington talked about the impact Turner had on the thousands of teenagers he taught in the confines of the downtown United Methodist church.
“Week after week, we saw teenagers struggling with some mighty big issues — and questions — respond to the unconditional love that Bill showed them,” she said. “We became a community, in good times and bad.”
She told a story to illustrate that. When she and her husband, Rick, were teaching with Turner she called one Sunday morning to say they would not make it because their dog, Molly, had been hit by a car the night before and killed.
“We called Bill and tearfully told him that we just didn’t think we could face getting to Sunday School,” she said. “We clearly didn’t fully think that through.”
About 15 minutes after Sunday School started, the class came to them.
“In our jammies, our family got loved on by a wonderful group of young people, as we all passed Kleenex and shared stories about dogs we’d loved and lost,” Covington said. “What Bill taught all of us that day was that presence matters. Being present with people who are hurting sometimes matters far more than what you say.”
As Covington concluded her remarks, Carson Hand, another former Sunday School student who was in the class while he was fighting cancer, sang “You’ve Got a Friend,” a 1971 song written by Carole King and made popular by James Taylor. Turner would play the song for his classes as he gave each student a Bible with his phone number in it.
King concluded his remarks with this:
“God poured oceans of love into Bill Turner and Bill believed, and I agree with him, God continues to pour that love out to all of us. Jesus loves me this I know, because the Bible and Bill Turner told me so.”