Columbus civic leader, philanthropist Bill Turner dies at 94

Bill and Sue Marie Turner watch as the Turner Courtyard inscription honoring Bill Turner, is unveiled in June 2012.
Bill and Sue Marie Turner watch as the Turner Courtyard inscription honoring Bill Turner, is unveiled in June 2012. Mike Haskey mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

William Bradley Turner, born into great wealth and high expectations as the only grandson of Columbus industrialist W.C. Bradley, was not defined by that wealth, said those who knew him well. Instead, he will be remembered for his wisdom, generosity, team-building and strong faith.

Turner, known simply as Bill or Mr. Bill, died late Monday at his midtown Columbus home, his family confirmed Tuesday morning. He was 94. Turner will be buried in a private graveside service Thursday morning at Parkhill Cemetery. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Luke United Methodist Church.

Retired Synovus Chairman Jimmy Blanchard said Turner’s influence on the Columbus of today cannot be overestimated. It can be seen in buildings, employee mental health assistance programs and the young lives he touched during 60 years of teaching Sunday school.

“I think Bill Turner has been the most powerful force for progress in our community for the last 50 years,” Blanchard said. “He has had a vision for the progress and the improvement of Columbus, and there are many of us who supported that vision or were participants in that vision. But essentially, I always felt like those of us that were involved were soldiers in Bill Turner’s army.”

It was an army fueled by Turner’s unique —and at times seemingly impossible — vision for the future, as well as by his love of community and his fear of failure.

“All of my life I have tried to play with a stacked deck of cards to prevent failure,” Turner said in a 1972 baccalaureate speech at Brookstone School, one of the many institutions that benefited from his family’s investment. “When I did fail, I had to place the blame on someone else, because to admit failure would destroy the little self-worth I had. You can imagine what sort of hell that made for those around me. But I have discovered that failure is one of the greatest learning experiences that a person can have.”

Reaction to Bill Turner’s death

Turner lived nearly half his life after making those remarks, and during that time he was at the forefront of a string of successes that transformed his hometown in dramatic ways. He led the diversification of the W.C. Bradley Co. after World War II from a textile operation into a retail and real estate development company. He was a leader on the board of Synovus as the regional banking company grew and as it birthed TSYS, one of the world’s top credit card processors. He was a driving force behind the Bradley Center and Pastoral Institute, organizations that dealt with the mental health needs.

He worked in the early 1970s to address the racial divide in Columbus, stepping into a leadership role of a bi-racial committee requested by then Gov. Jimmy Carter. But it was after the death of his father, D.A. Turner, in 1982 that Turner’s influence grew through the financial strength of the Bradley-Turner Foundation. The charitable organization, controlled by Turner and his sisters Sarah Turner Butler and Elizabeth Turner Corn, had the will and resources to donate millions of dollars to institutions and causes.

His name may not be in bold print on most pages of Columbus’ modern history, because many of the original financial gifts were made anonymously, but Turner is there between the lines, said those who participated in his vision.

“That is by his design,” said Mat Swift, the president of the Bradley Company Real Estate Division. “And he would not want it any other way. He would always give credit to other people though it may have been his idea or his nudge or his plan.”

His list of accomplishments is long and includes downtown Columbus redevelopment —including the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts and the renovation of the Springer Opera House — as well as the creation of the National Infantry Museum, servant leadership programs at universities across the state and many others.

Turner practiced what former Coca-Cola Chairman Robert Woodruff preached. There was a sign on Woodruff’s desk that said, “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”

It was a mindset Turner adopted, and some say perfected.

“That was part of Bill’s philosophy, and he used the ability to encourage people to go beyond where they would normally think they could go,” Swift said. “That caused so many organizations, companies and entities to expand. And they did it because of his encouragement and support. When people come to Columbus and say, ‘How did y’all do all this?’ you can’t put your finger on any one thing. But I always say it was through Bill Turner’s encouragement and vision. You’ve got to have a big vision — there is no such thing as a small vision. And you have to encourage people to seek that big vision. That is what he did.”

Retired Columbus State University President Frank Brown was another partner in Turner’s vision of progress.

“His vision was unmatched; his love for community unfailing; his influence on people, institutions and their dreams unlimited; and he never sought or accepted personal credit for any of it,” Brown said.

A grandfather’s expectations

On Oct. 11, 1930, his eighth birthday, Turner was saddled by his grandfather William Clark Bradley with a sense of great responsibility.

And he spent the next 87 years trying to be equal to the challenge.

Bradley, married to Sarah M. Hall, the daughter of a Connecticut ship builder, had built his wealth as a post-Civil War cotton broker and river baron. Their only surviving child was Elizabeth Bradley, who married D.A. Turner. They had three children, Sarah, Bill and Elizabeth.

Bradley grew his wealth when, along with Ernest Woodruff, he organized an investment syndicate that purchased Atlanta-based Coca-Cola for $25 million in 1919. For the next 27 years, Bradley would serve as chairman of the Coca-Cola Board of Directors.

Bradley used his grandson’s birthday to set expectations.

On Eagle & Phenix Mill letterhead, Bradley sent Turner a letter that started, “My Precious Grandson.”

Bradley talked of the family’s love of the boy, but ended the letter with a sentence that put in motion a plan that would be executed over the next 87 years.

“You are now eight years old and I want you to commence thinking about the important things of life and endeavor in every possible way to become worthy of the great responsibilities that will be yours in years to come,” Bradley wrote.

Turner felt the responsibility, as he stated in his book “The Learning of Love: A Journey Toward Servant Leadership.”

“If someone were to ask me how his letter to me influenced my life, I’d have to say that the letter itself didn’t have much impact, but the expectations that prompted the letter had a profound influence,” Turner wrote. “There was never any doubt that Pa-Pa expected me to take over as head of the families and companies after he was gone. And there was very little doubt I would do that.”

Turner seized the opportunity that came with being born into a family of great wealth, Brown said.

“Bill Turner had the advantage of being born into that family and he had the obligation that came with it of being a leader from the very start,” Brown said. “When I say he stood on the shoulders of his father and grandfather, what I mean is they provided the platform and they provided the nurturing that made him the man he became.”

Turner never lost that sense of responsibility that was placed in him by his grandfather, said friend and confidant Ron King, the retired president of the Pastoral Institute.

“This man could have been on a 400-foot yacht anywhere in the world — he could have been living in the Riviera,” King said. “He could have been doing anything he wanted to, and he was right here, thinking every day about how to make this a better community for everybody that lives here.”

If the letter from his grandfather defined the expectations of his life, Turner’s experience in World War II helped shape the man who would eventually have to live up to those lofty ideals.

When Turner graduated from Georgia Tech, the nation was at war on multiple fronts. He had been in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps in college, and in 1943 he received his commission. He spent three years in the Navy, much of it on a minesweeper in the South Pacific.

“My time in the Navy was one of tremendous personal growth,” Turner wrote in his book. “I knew I was out from under the spotlight. But the main thing that I realized was whatever happened wasn’t because of my family. I was on my own. I began to experience, for the first time, an appreciation and respect for myself out of the framework of my family.”

The Navy was preparing him to come home and lead the family empire, accepting the challenge his grandfather had outlined in the letter he’d received as a boy.

“One of the things I learned in the Navy was to think ahead for all possible situations that might develop and plan the solutions to any problems well in advance of their happening,” he wrote.

Turner’s war experience as a Naval officer also shaped the way others looked at him, King said, because he hadn’t used his family’s great influence to stay out of the middle of the fight.

“I think, first of all, it gave him credibility because he served,” King said. “He was a Southern gentleman who’s going to do what’s right, and this was the right thing to do.”

Witnessing the human cost of war would influence the way Turner lived when he returned to Columbus. “Being in the presence of death quite often caused me to think about the meaning of life,” he wrote.

Coming home

In his twenties, Turner came home to Columbus after the war to assume his anointed place in the family business empire. His world changed quickly in several ways.

First, his grandfather, W.C. Bradley, died suddenly at home on July 26, 1947, at the age of 84. Turner was 24. His father, D.A. Turner assumed leadership of the companies, but Bill Turner quickly became a critical player.

Then Turner found the love of his life, Sue Marie Thompson, the daughter of a successful Columbus physician. They married in October 1948, after a short courtship. She was 19, seven years younger than her husband.

“Sue Marie was the first person who could make me look at myself and see what I was,” Turner wrote in the book. “She made me realize I was doing things for approval.”

They were married 65 years before her death on May 8, 2014. They had six children: Donna Turner Brown, William Bradley Turner Jr., Marie Turner Moshell, John Turner, Sarah Turner Martin and Don Abbott Turner II, who is deceased. They have 22 grandchildren and and 27 great-grandchildren.

In 1953, Bill Turner was elected to succeed his father as CEO of the Bradley Company. The father remained chairman, and the son served as vice chairman of the board of directors.

Turner assumed the chairman’s role upon his father’s death nearly 30 years later. In 1987, he turned the management of the company over to the next generation, as Steve Turner Butler became chairman and CEO, and William B. “Brad” Turner became president of the Bradley Co.

Bill Turner was instrumental in diversifying the business of the W.C. Bradley Company, Swift said.

“Mr. Bradley was an entrepreneur, Mr. D.A. Turner was a banker that got things financially straight, and Bill was the visionary that took all of the things that his father and grandfather had done and put them in motion,” Swift said. “When he came back to Columbus after World War II and there was an explosion of suburbs, it was his vision to take this old forging plant and put it to a different use. He was looking for opportunities, and he saw that in outdoor charcoaling to go along with a gazillion suburban houses. That’s the Genesis of getting the Bradley Company into its main business, Char-Broil.”

Turner’s leadership opened up many opportunities, Swift said. The family-owned company became a major real estate developer and also acquired other companies including Zebco, the manufacturer of fishing equipment, and Lamplight, the Wisconsin company that makes TIKI brand torches. All of that, and the enormous success of Coca-Cola, set the stage for philanthropic efforts that would alter the Columbus landscape.

“Because of that vibrant company, they had the resources to do things for the community,” Swift said. “You can’t overlook that. The flip side is if the company had folded, this town wouldn’t have been what it is.”

Turner gets a lot of credit for his philanthropic work, but it is the business side that should not be lost when evaluating his impact, Swift said.

“One should never overlook the credit that he should get from the business side,” he said. “Look at what he’s done with the Bradley Company, what he’s done with CB&T/Synovus, and then what he has done with TSYS. And he was also on boards like Coca-Cola, Georgia Power and the Board of Regents.”

W.C. Bradley served on the Coca-Cola board of directors until shortly before his death in 1947, when his son-in-law D.A. Turner joined the board. Later, Bill Turner became the third generation to serve on the Coca-Cola board when his father stepped down because of an age limit.

“They’ve been a part of that major success story from the very beginning,” Blanchard said.

Turner was fond of spaniels, and two of his favorite dogs were reminders of the ties to Coca-Cola. One was named Coke — pronounced “Coke-y” — and the other was Sprite, another popular Coca-Cola drink.

“He held a high leadership position on Coca-Cola’s board when Coca-Cola was doubling and tripling in value,” Swift said.

Turner was fiercely loyal to Coca-Cola. Visitors to Turner’s office on Front Avenue would often be offered an 8-ounce bottle of Coke.

Swift recalls the time during a construction project at the Bradley Company when a contractor placed a Pepsi machine on the site.

“Bill saw it and the next day that Pepsi machine was gone,” Swift said.

King remembers bird hunting with Turner on the family farm along the Chattahoochee River in Stewart County. The trip would start with a prayer by the minister, who drove the buggy to the fields.

“Eventually you would stop and he would say, ‘Anybody want a Coke?’” King remembered. “And everybody wants a Coke. So, they got a cooler on the back, and everybody gets a Coke.”

Then the game started. Turner asked King for the change in his pocket. Back in the day, the Coke bottles were stamped with the site of the plant where the drink was bottled.

“You would always, you know, put a quarter in — or a dime or nickel, whatever you had in your pocket — in the pot,” King said.

The one whose bottle came from the farthest away won.

Teaching the Word

For more than 60 years, Turner taught a high school Sunday school class at St. Luke United Methodist Church. It was a lifetime commitment in which he reached thousands of young people at a critical point in their development, King said.

D.A. Turner helped nudge his son into the responsibility at the church, King said.

“When he came back from World War II, his daddy watched him,” King said. “He was hanging around with boys and having a good time and playing, and he thought he needed to find something constructive for this man to do. ... So, he went to the preacher at St. Luke and said, ‘Is there a class my son can teach in Sunday school?’”

That class was high school seniors, and if Turner was out of town on a Saturday he would drive back to Columbus to teach his lesson, King said.

“There were many times he could have stayed up in the mountains, but he didn’t,” King said.

Turner formed a new lesson each week, often starting the planning on Monday.

“He didn’t use prepared content, he didn’t use a quarterly — he came up with it on his own,” King said.

He used the Scripture to address real-life situations. And he used Styrofoam cups to teach the lesson of the The Samaritan woman who was drawing water from the well when she met Jesus.

Turner would give the cups to his students. Holding a pencil, he would punch holes in the cups and talk about the issues of life.

Then he drew water from a minnow bucket made to look like a well and poured it into the cups.

Eventually, he would have the students come together and place their cups, filled with holes, into a single stack. He would then pour water in the stacked cups and they didn’t leak.

“He would then ask them, ‘What do you think about that? If we put things together and incorporate and work in a manner where we put our resources together, what that can do for us, as opposed to when we try to operate on our own,’” King said.

That was the end of the sermon.

“He turned the Bible into something kids could use,” King said.

He also gave each student a Bible in which he placed his name and phone number on a blank page. They were encouraged to call him if they ever needed help.

And many did.

Turner told of one such story in his baccalaureate speech at Brookstone School, recounting a letter he had received from one of his former Sunday school students.

“This boy had everything — looks, intelligence and personality,” Turner told the Class of 1972. “He was an agnostic who only came to Sunday school because his parents made him come.”

Turner feared his message had never reached the boy, but the letter showed otherwise.

“I have discovered that I can reach all of the goals that I set for myself in life,” the man wrote to Turner. “I can make it with the girls, I can attain wealth, position, recognition and fame, but it is not enough. It adds up to a big zero. I will be home in two weeks and I want to come and talk with you.”

St. Luke celebrated Turner’s 50 years of teaching Sunday school in 1998. He would not step out of the classroom until 2009.

In the preface of Turner’s biography, co-author Delane Chappell, a former Ledger-Enquirer business reporter, talked about the process of writing with Turner.

“I found a man who lives his faith daily, who really does act out of love and genuine concern for others, and who is an incredibly sensitive reader of people and equally good listener,” Chappell wrote. “I also found that Bill, like all of us, has his warts —an ego that sometimes gets the best of him and an impatience when things aren’t moving as fast as he thinks they should.”

Turner modeled Christian behavior in all he did, Blanchard said.

“He is the most ultimately fair person that I’ve ever known,” Blanchard said. “He is the model Christian; he lives the Scriptures; he is a man that is a doer of the word and not a hearer only, and he is a mentor and a role model to me and so many other hundreds of people that know him.”

Racial fires burning

Turner was a key player in race relations during the turbulent 1960s and ’70s.

On March 26, 1992, he was the keynote speaker at the 20th anniversary of the Metropolitan Columbus Urban League, an organization he helped found and fund. His remarks are a candid portrait of race in Columbus during that period.

Then Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter had called a committee to address the growing tensions in the community, and it met in a motel on Illges Road, Turner noted in the speech to the Urban League.

“We began a series of long meetings where blaming, shooting, cursing, demanding, threatening were the order of the day,” Turner said that night, according to a copy of his speech. “Some dropped out because it was a no-win situation for all of us and there was no opportunity for personal gain and power.”

But a strange thing happened to those who stayed, Turner said.

“We began to listen, we began to develop respect, friendship and love that transcended the differences among us, and that bond still exists,” Turner said. “And even stranger things began to happen. We discovered we wanted the same thing: a better world for our children.”

Longstanding friendships with black ministers like the Rev. Johnnie Flakes and the Rev. Rudy Allen were formed.

In a 2016 interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Allen noted his relationship with Turner and the common ground they found.

“I really believe that Bill genuinely loves this city,” Allen said. “I genuinely love this city and I think that was the common ground — that we wanted to see our city the best that it could be without a whole lot of friction, a whole lot of problems. ... He opened up his bank vault to bless the city, and to bring about economic development, to bring about a certain amount of understanding among races.”

Turner’s relationships developed during that time extended to national leaders such as Vernon Jordan, a prominent Washington, D.C., attorney and the national president of the Urban League when the Columbus chapter was chartered.

Shortly before delivering the anniversary speech at the local Urban League, Turner ran into Jordan when both men were in Paris. Turner asked Jordan if he had any suggestions for his upcoming remarks.

A few days later, Jordan sent him a letter that said, in part, “I hope your address will be as I have always known you to be, straight, honest, open and forthright in your views,” Jordan wrote in 1992. “To facilitate your thinking in either agreement or dissent, I am taking the liberty of sharing with you three recent speeches of mine, where I try and give some thought on issues of mutual concern.”

Turner, using Jordan’s words and thoughts as a springboard, told the local group there was a difference between dissent and divisiveness.

“Unfortunately, there are people and groups who exploit our diversity for personal gain and power,” Turner said. “They blame rather than boost, sow discord rather than seek solutions, lash out rather than listen, and criticize rather than create. ... Dissent and diversity are healthy and necessary if we are to change, but divisiveness is deadly because it immobilizes an entire community.”

Giving back

In the mid-1990s, Turner and his family changed the way Columbus looked at philanthropy.

Turner aimed high and brought others along for the ride. In the 1990s, he issued what became known as the Columbus Challenge, a fund-raising effort that topped $100 million and benefited a handful of Columbus arts organizations and museums that depended on private support for survival. The Bradley-Turner Foundation piece of that large gift was more than $26.8 million.

“Prior to the Columbus Challenge, the most that Columbus had ever raised was like 10 or 11 million dollars for the Columbus Museum,” Swift said.

One by one, numerous organizations were approaching the Bradley-Turner Foundation for financial support.

Turner finally drew a line.

“There weren’t any ifs, ands and buts about it, it was Bill Turner who said to all of them, ‘Look, if each of y’all just ask for your own money, you’re gonna get a little dribble here and a dribble there. But if all of y’all go in together, then I think all of y’all would do more,’” Swift said.

The message was delivered — and received.

“That was the first time in the history of fund-raising in Columbus that someone said to the arts organizations — and to the education components too — ‘Try to get together, try to work together,’” Swift said.

And they did.

Once the arts community was aligned, the potential givers were brought into the process, Swift said. A meeting was held with families and foundations that had a history of generosity to various organizations and causes.

“We started the meeting off with some of the Bradley-Turner family in that room, but then they all left,” Swift said. “It was typical Bill: ‘So this is our idea, but if y’all don’t think this is a good idea, that’s fine with us. We think it has merit, but we don’t want to push it on the rest of y’all.’ ... It was very important that the rest of those people in that room did not feel like this was being pushed down their throat.”

What Turner was doing was leveraging the assets of an entire community, Brown said.

“They were really fond of challenges,” Brown said of the Bradley-Turner family. “The Columbus Challenge was a true challenge. And probably not as much as they gave away, but they brought a lot of money into play that wouldn’t have been there without their leadership.”

Turner later explained in the 1997 Knight Foundation Annual Report what he was trying to accomplish when he issued the challenge in 1995. Columbus had started building a riverwalk along the Chattahoochee River to Fort Benning, and the city’s infrastructure was being overhauled with the mingling of public money from a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax and private donations.

“Our tremendous momentum was threatened by the prospect of nine cultural fund-raising drives taking place in the same time frame,” Turner wrote.

The Bradley-Turner Foundation leadership met with representatives from the Columbus Museum, Columbus State University, the Coca-Cola Space Science Center, the Performing Arts Center, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, the Historic Columbus Foundation, the Civil War Naval Museum, the Springer Opera House and the Liberty Theatre.

“We all agreed that nine separate fund-raising drives would result in a highly competitive atmosphere that would negate much that had been accomplished and exhaust our community.”

There was a lesson in the challenge, Turner wrote.

“We have learned that taking the time to develop a sense of community ownership empowers everyone and results in exciting public-private partnerships,” Turner summarized.

The RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, as well as the restoration of the Springer Opera House and Liberty Theatre and a number of endowments grew out of that process.

But what also grew was a change in the way Columbus gave. Major fund drives for Columbus State University and the National Infantry Museum have followed. CSU is currently in its second fund-raising effort designed to commit more than $100 million. The $110 million National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center just off the Fort Benning gate in south Columbus was built almost exclusively with private funds, including a large gift from the Bradley-Turner Foundation.

“Show me any other community of 200,000 people or less that has raised $300 million or more,” Swift said. “I attribute a lot of it to Bill from the standpoint that — it gets back without saying — he encouraged other people, he had big visions, and of course he would put his money where his mouth was, too. And he did it without making people feel like they were being pushed.”

And Turner refused to take personal credit, Brown said. An example of that is Legacy Hall, the smaller theater in the RiverCenter.

“That is really Bill Turner Hall but he wouldn’t let us name it for him,” Brown said. “He wouldn’t let us name it for the Bradley-Turner Foundation, so we had to name it Legacy Hall. In the plaque you can see we’ve managed to put in a few words about him and the family.”

Turner was instrumental in establishing and helping secure the funding for CSU’s downtown RiverPark campus, which today houses the music, arts, education and nursing programs and offers about 500 dorm beds, most of them in structures along Broadway and Front Avenue from 12th Street to the Dillingham Bridge.

Brown can remember times the university was able to secure substantial gifts from others because of the support of Turner and the Bradley-Turner Foundation. One of those came in the first CSU capital campaign when they asked the Kreske Foundation in Detroit for $1 million for bricks and mortar.

“They had no idea in the world who we were, but they wanted to see that we had other support,” Brown said. “We were able to point to the Bradley-Turner contributions. He helped us in ways that he never knew he was helping us.”

A lot of Turner’s generosity was never known, Blanchard said.

“Those of us who were involved closely with him know how many hundreds of things that he did and nobody ever knew about,” Blanchard said. “You know he didn’t want his name on things.”

Ask Blanchard how Columbus would be different if Turner had not passed through and he responds without pause, while also crediting Turner’s two sisters, Sarah Turner Butler and Elizabeth Turner Corn, and their families.

“It would be a different place and all you have to do is look at Macon and Augusta and Savannah and other Georgia midsize cities,” Blanchard said. “They didn’t have a Bill Turner and they didn’t have a Bradley-Turner Foundation. And Bill was not only the man with a vision, and not only the man with the zeal to see Columbus grow and progress, but he also had the means through the foundation with the support of that entire family. ... You can’t forget about the Butler and the Corn families joining with the Turner family in being able to initiate a lot of things financially that could not have been done by the community without their financial support.”

Swift said Turner, during a recent visit, continued to downplay his role.

“All he would talk about was how other people deserved all the credit,” Swift said. “That’s his DNA to give other people credit.”

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams