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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Ralph D. Turlington: The plaza, the building, the man

Ralph now
Ralph now

With a Gator blanket laid across his nursing home bed, Ralph D. Turlington has decided he is going to make it to 100.

He can add it to his list of accomplishments with achievements like establishing UF Health Shands Hospital and the Florida Lottery and becoming the longest-serving representative in Florida.

“He’s so goal-oriented,” his daughter, Katherine, joked.

As students walk across Turlington Plaza and take classes in Turlington Hall, they may not know the man the structures are named after is still alive at 98-and-a-half years old (he is proud of the half). His painting hangs inside the hall’s lobby, showing him younger with thinning brown hair.

Turlington’s story may not be well-known when compared to other UF legacy namesakes like J. Wayne Reitz or Stephen C. O’Connell, possibly due to a lack of political controversies surrounding his name.

In recent years, several student groups have called for the renaming of the J. Wayne Reitz Student Union because the former UF president had allowed dozens of university employees and students to be discharged or expelled for homosexual conduct.

Others look at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center because he oversaw the arrest of 66 black student civil rights protestors and threatened their expulsion.

Turlington, instead, pointed toward the direction of integration and acceptance.

Katherine, now 64, remembered as a child telling her grandmother about the first black student to join her class, she said. Don’t be her friend, her grandmother said.

When Katherine went home to her father, he quickly dismissed it.

He told her to just be fair to everyone.

• • •

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Ralph Turlington, born in 1920, grew up milking cows and raising chickens at his home where Gainesville High School now stands.

The UF and Harvard University alumnus went on to be a Democratic state representative for Alachua County, a speaker of the House and then the state’s education commissioner, which was an elected Cabinet-level position that oversaw the operations of the education department.

This was no surprise to his family, who heard him announce as an elementary schooler that he would be kind to his classmates because they may vote for him someday. Or again when he took his first elected office as the senior class president of P.K. Yonge Laboratory School, which is now named P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School.

Turlington graduated and went on to UF, getting perfect grades while joining the Student Council as the Business Manager of the Florida Alligator, UF’s student paper at the time.

He was elected into the Florida Blue Key, UF’s prestigious leadership honorary fraternity.

He graduated in 1942 with plans to stay in Gainesville for law school, but WWII changed things for everyone.

He went to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to study at Harvard University’s business school where he was in the advanced ROTC program. In 1943, he graduated with his master’s and was also commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

Later that year, he went to England and became a first lieutenant. He operated as an officer at a northern France gasoline supply company, where he watched over more than 100 black soldiers.

His son, Don, said he thinks that may be part of the reason his father had such a progressive view of people of color.

Turlington was set to go to the Pacific, but Japan surrendered as he was on a boat toward the Panama Canal.

In late 1945, he was ordered to Atlanta, where he met Ann Gellerstedt, his future wife. He and Ann married in October of the next year and moved to Gainesville soon after. His mind still lingered on politics, and his family name had roots in the small North Central Florida city.

He pounced at the opportunity to run after a local legislator decided not to run for re-election. He dropped his job as a university business instructor because UF had a policy that professors could not serve in political office.

Turlington and Ann had their first child, Ralph Donald “Don” Turlington Jr., in 1948. His first campaign for the Alachua County house representative seat kicked off in late 1949, which was his most competitive and only run-off race. His children recalled how he loved debating his opponents on the issues.

He was always a strong liberal Democrat. He told a joke to his daughter that he once thought about being a Republican, but then took up reading.

Don said he remembered his father telling him how political rallies were segregated between whites and blacks, and his dad was one of the only politicians to go to the black rallies and talk with potential voters.

“Dad has always been pro-civil rights, even when it wasn’t popular,” Don said.

• • •

In Tallahassee, Ralph Turlington landed spots in prominent committees. He did not make many enemies. He always kept his composure.

ralph then

His colleagues knew him for being level-headed and picking out arguments with detective-like questions, so much so that the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Claude R. Kirk Jr., landed the nickname “Kirk the Jerk” in Forbes magazine after arguments with Turlington as House speaker.

“He was very well liked, persuasive, smart, had a way of asking very good questions in a Columbo-like way,” said Jon Mills, a former speaker of the House after Turlington and former UF law school dean.

“He was a shining example — someone with integrity and principal commitment to education that I could look up to,” Mills said.

Turlington was part of pivotal changes in Florida’s history. He was a member of the Constitutional Revision Commission that drafted the state’s new constitution because the former one was riddled with Jim Crow-era laws. He also helped amend the new Constitution in 1970 to include a corporate income tax, despite political opposition.

He later became the state’s commissioner of education. He was first appointed to the position by the governor after the one before him resigned following political scandals.

When it came for the election, he won against three others without a runoff. He was reelected two more times, serving for more than 12 years.

One of his proudest achievements was in 1975 when a Miami Herald reporter investigated the murder conviction of two black men named Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee. The reporter concluded that the two were likely innocent.

Their conviction occurred in the panhandle, where racial tensions were strong, and most assumed they were guilty.

Racially charged protests from the area erupted over it as the Florida Cabinet voted to pardon Pitts and Lee.

Ralph cast the final vote to set them free.

• • •

Despite his efforts to better Florida, some ridiculed him.

Some colleagues snickered nicknames like “Harvard egghead” or the “Do-gooder.”

Turlington never drank or smoked. Lobbyists had to put him in his own category because he could not be swayed over an alcohol-influenced perspective, Katherine said.

But he always looked at himself as just any other legislator who did his job well, his daughter said. He had always been “such a good egg.”

“He wasn’t as present as my mother, but he was certainly the joy who made you think life was worth living,” she said. “You always wanted to be with dad.”

Don recognized his father’s ethics at about 13 years old, he said. Like most of the other representatives’ children at the time, Don asked his father to help him get a job as a page in the Tallahassee Capitol building.

Turlington agreed to help his son. Don looked forward to getting an official check with the Florida seal.

When he went to pick up his paycheck, he noticed that it was the only one full of cash.

His father never told him, but he later realized his dad put the cash in his envelope instead of having taxpayers pay him.

“I couldn’t have had a better father,” he said. “Dad was always a straight, honest guy, which wasn’t a standard for politics at his time. Needless to say, I love him more than anyone else.”

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