Ralph D. Turlington Sr., the namesake of UF’s Turlington Hall and Turlington Plaza, had a knack for making people smile.
“He was able to get along in essence with virtually everyone — no matter where they came from or their political persuasion,” his son, Don Turlington, said.
Ralph D. Turlington Sr. died May 12 at 100 years old.
Born Oct. 5, 1920, Turlington grew up on a farm where Gainesville High School is now located. He was a member of P.K. Yonge Laboratory School’s first high school class before starting at UF, Don said. Today, the school is called P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School.
He was first elected to the Florida Legislature in 1950 as a Democrat and was reelected 11 more times. Turlington was the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives from 1966 to 1968.
He was a natural politician, Don said. No matter what he was debating in the legislature, Turlington was able to do so without offense, he said.
In 1973, he was appointed by the governor to be the state’s commissioner of education. The following year, he won the statewide election for the position and was reelected twice before retiring in 1986.
As a UF alumnus, Turlington took pride in his achievements for the university. He started as a student in 1938 and graduated from the university in 1942 with a bachelor's degree in business administration, Don said. Later on, Turlington taught at UF as a business instructor.
Before each legislative session, Don remembers the president of UF and around six other administrators coming to their family’s house to see Turlington, he said. With papers all spread out, they’d tell Turlington how much money they needed, Don said.
When the Florida Legislature would budget funds for universities, Turlington did his best to make sure UF was first in line, Don said.
“I think that was because of the soft spot in his heart for the university as his alma mater,” Don said.
Because of his presence and involvement at UF, the university named Turlington Hall and Turlington Plaza after him in Oct. 1985, 43 years after receiving his degree.
After church each Sunday, Don said Turlington would take him to see places around Gainesville. Around 1956, Turlington and Don visited a construction site at UF where they climbed ladders and admired the views from the upper floors.
When Don asked about the building, Turlington told him it would become the UF teaching hospital and medical school, which is now UF Health Shands Hospital, Don said. Turlington, Florida Sen. William Shands and Florida Rep. Osee Fagan were the legislators who obtained the funding to establish the medical center. Turlington was proud of the role he played in getting the initial funding for the hospital, Don said.
Turlington understood both issues and people, Jon Mills, a former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and former UF law school dean, said. When trying to gain support for education funding, he knew how to explain it simply, Mills said.
He also helped establish and campaign for the Florida Lottery, which funds education in the state.
When Donnie Turlington, his grandson, would visit Turlington as a child, Turlington would relate stories from his political career to what they were doing together, Donnie said. Turlington always had a joke ready to go.
Turlington believed everyone should always continue to learn, his daughter, Kathy Turlington, said. He yearned for knowledge and would read encyclopedias, she said. On road trips, he’d stop Kathy and Don to view historical plaques, making sure they understood each one’s importance, she said.
Later in their marriage, Turlington and his wife, Ann Gellerstedt, would read “The Story of Civilization” by Will and Ariel Durant — an 11-volume set about the history and culture of man — to each other out loud, Kathy said.
“How romantic is that?” Kathy said, laughing.
Turlington also had music in his soul. He loved to sing — even in his final days, Kathy said. He was famous for changing song lyrics and did so with a straight face, she said.
Once as a child, Kathy said she made the mistake of singing her father’s version of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” at Vacation Bible School to the horror of her teacher.
“He was always worried that somebody was going to plagiarize his lyrics, and he wasn’t going to get financially compensated for his creative effort,” Kathy joked.
Even bigger than his love of music was his sense of humor, Kathy said. Turlington had the ability to make others laugh no matter who he was with and never took himself too seriously.
“My dad’s great gift was his joy and enthusiasm for other people,” Kathy said. “He just had a spark.”
While at his retirement home’s gym, Turlington would always listen to the same song first: “(Won’t You Come Home) Bill Bailey,” Megan Taub, his granddaughter, said. Every day for months, he sang along to it while exercising as Taub listened, she said.
“Now, I love that song more than anything,” Taub said. “I think it’s kind of like our song.”
Whenever someone was feeling down, Turlington would say how proud he was to be related to them, Taub said.
“No one has ever made me feel more loved or have I loved that much,” she said. “There was no one more important to him than his family.”
Contact Juliana Ferrie at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @juliana_f616.
Juliana Ferrie is a second-year UF journalism student. She is excited to be working for The Alligator as the Santa Fe Beat reporter. In her free time, you can find her reading or listening to music.