My friend Marybeth Sutton Wallace (’86) met me for lunch last week, wanting to tell me about a loss for North Carolina and her former community. “He was a Double Deac,” she said, lamenting the death of Fred Turnage (’58, JD ’61, P ’84 and ’87). He died of pancreatic cancer at age 75 on July 31, in his beloved Rocky Mount, where he became the city’s youngest mayor at age 37 and served for 34 years. Aside from his political skills noted for bringing out the best in people, he was known, my friend told me, for his ardent support of Wake Forest University. If you listened closely, you would catch him publicly asking God to bless the Deacons at the microphone before meals, even if the meals were being served at other fine colleges in eastern North Carolina.
The Rocky Mount Telegram announced his death by saying Turnage was “(w)idely regarded by residents and community leaders as a man who displayed benevolent and selfless leadership.” N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper called Turnage’s life of political service “a labor of love.”
And in Georgia, George Chidi, a former staff writer for the Rocky Mount Telegram and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote about how he wept when he heard the news. “Turnage was my very first exposure to Southern politics. I walked into his law offices expecting a reaction akin to something from a 1960s civil rights news reel, a drawling Bull Connor, Boss Hogg in a seersucker suit and a straw hat, on high alert for tricks from the liberal biracial Boston city slicker.
“Those of you who knew Mayor Turnage pretty much know what happened next, which is to say, nothing of the sort happened. He was friendly and funny and quickly put me at ease. He matter-of-factly described Rocky Mount to me, warts and all — its struggle to recover from the flood, its problems with poverty, the continuing racial divide. He was candid, humble and self-effacing. And, clearly in retrospect, he knew what I might be thinking about him and his beloved city because he’d had to do that dance before.”
That first meeting changed Chidi’s perspective: “I entered his offices braced for conflict. I left a committed observer, and I think it made me a much better reporter — a much better person, actually.” Read Chidi’s remembrance here.
And consider that for one man in Rocky Mount, American political service, tended with selfless leadership, could be practiced and honored as a labor of love despite divisive times.