The Eulogy for Harlan Turner

11
Jan

Harlan Turner was born on April 17th, 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia; the one and only child of his parents.  His father was an easy going southern gentleman who worked for ATT, and just days after Harlan’s birth, his father’s work transferred the family to Macon, Georgia. A year and a half after that, the family moved yet again to Savannah, Georgia, arriving there just before the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

The resulting Great Depression led to his hours being reduced, which meant Harlan’s father had more time to go fishing.  In his memoirs which Harlan would write late in his life (and from which I’ll be drawing in this eulogy) Harlan remembered how at a very young age he accompanied his father and his friends on an overnight fishing trip.  The darkness of the night in the woods scared him, as did the small shark that was caught.   As he would put it, “I’ve never cared for fishing since that time.”

In contrast to his father, Harlan’s mother was far stricter, and when his behavior displeased her, she would send him out to fetch the switch by which he would get a switching.   Fortunately during the seven years the family spent in Savannah, a black maid named Mamie Daniels was hired by his parents and in Harlan’s own words, “she took good care of me.” Because of the deepening Depression, at one point his parents planned to let Mamie go, but she pleaded with them to keep her because she did not know how she would survive.  Moved by her plight, his parents agreed to keep her on throughout their stay in Savannah.

Mamie was able to offer nurture to Harlan in a way that perhaps his own mother could not.  For the rest of his life Harlan carried with him “the very fondest of memories” of his nanny.  When years later Harlan heard of Mamie’s untimely death in a train accident he was deeply distressed.   In his memoirs he wrote that, “It still brings tears to my eyes when I think about her.”  In the south in those years racism among whites was simply the norm, but the love Harlan knew from Mamie, along with his parents’ enlightened example inspired in him a lifelong commitment to racial equality.

Because of another job transfer for his father in 1936, the family moved to Miami, Florida for two years where Harlan’s two closest playmates were Hector and Louie, the sons of Cuban refugees.

Harlan was an avid book reader from early on, the result of which was he skipped a grade when he got to elementary school.  One unpleasant memory brought about by his advanced academic ability was that there were certain periods of time in school in which Harlan would be sent to the cafeteria to wash dishes while his classmates were studying subjects he had long since mastered. It embarrassed Harlan greatly to be washing dishes when his classmates came to lunch.

In 1938 a major promotion for Harlan’s father led to another move to Jacksonville, where family lived for the next seven years.  When Harlan got to high school, he played basketball and was treasurer of his senior class and was active in leadership positions at the local YMCA.

It was during those years that World War II was fought, and as a teenager Harlan did his part for the war effort by volunteering as an aircraft spotter.  This involved studying the shapes of various aircraft, and then on weekends taking a shift with a friend at the top of a lookout tower where they would scan the horizon.  It was their job to record the number and types of planes that flew overhead and phone the information to the proper authorities, but since their shifts usually occurred at night, the shapes were typically recorded as unknown.

Harlan graduated from high school in 1945 at the age of 17 just as the war was coming to an end.  He had done well enough in school to be accepted into Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He studied engineering because he had heard there were plenty of jobs open to engineers.  He also played for a year on the junior varsity of the vaunted Duke basketball team.  He graduated in 1949 and moved to Charlotte to take a job with Southern Bell Telephone Company.

In 1950, however the war broke out in Korea.  With a characteristic humor that was always a part of Harlan’s life, he described how “the government soon realized that they needed me to help win the war,” so he was drafted into the army.  He spent basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, after which he served for two years with the Signal Corp at Ft. Monmouth in New Jersey.  At one point a friend of his at the base was given orders to ship out to Korea to fight in the war. Since his friend had a wife, Harlan volunteered to go in his place.  His offer wasn’t accepted.

As he put it, the highlight of his time at Ft. Monmouth was when he met Virginia Brasefield at the Red Bank Methodist Church where he had begun attending.  They became engaged, and shortly after his discharge in 1952 they were married.  They moved to Charlotte, North Carolina where Harlan took a job selling electrical equipment, but before long he realized that he didn’t like being a salesman.  With his great love of learning, Harlan began to imagine a life as a college professor teaching History.  With the help of the GI Bill he returned to Duke for an additional year of studies as preparation for applying to a PHD program in History.  The year Harlan spent studying at Duke was, as he put it, “one of the highlights of his intellectual life, enriching my life for years to come.” Unfortunately, however he was not able to secure the financial aid necessary to pursue the PHD.

 

It was during this year of study that David, Harlan and Virginia’s first child, was born.  When the Spring semester concluded, Harlan took a job with IBM to support his family, leading to a move to Poughkeepsie, NY.  It was there that Richard was born in 1956.   Eventually a job transfer led to another move to Westchester, NY.

 

David has happy, loving memories from this period of time of his father.  He remembers how his Dad would roughhouse with him on the living room floor.  His dad would tickle him and rub the light stubble of his beard on David’s face, making him squeal with laughter.

 

Since his Dad was a lover of books and passed that love on to David, it’s not surprising that some of David’s earliest memories of his father are of his father reading to him and Rich.  There was an after supper ritual in which Harlan would ask his sons what book they would like him to read, and once they made their choice their dad would plop down on the couch — Rich on one side, Dave on the other.  Leaning in close against him, they would happily listen as their father’s voice would lead them on some far away adventure.

 

Harlan’s work with IBM wasn’t very satisfying until he began to work for a man named Jack Norton, who recognized Harlan’s abilities and gave him significant responsibilities.  Unfortunately, when Jack was given a promotion and a transfer, the man who took over Jack’s position insisted Harlan stay behind to assist him.  Harlan’s new boss proved far less gratifying to work for, and he grew disenchanted with life in the corporate world.

 

Harlan had always had an independent streak.  He longed to be his own boss, and since he had always loved books and learning, he began to imagine life as the owner of a book store.  He took a part time job working in a local book store so he could get a feel for the business.  Although his father discouraged him from considering such a dramatic change of career, when Harlan heard in 1962 that a book stop was up for sale in Summit, New Jersey, he decided to take the plunge. It took courage to make such a leap of faith, but in time the decision proved to be a good one.  For the next 30 years Harlan enjoyed life managing the Summit Book Shop.  It was hard work with long hours, but the shop prospered for many years until the big chain bookstores began to move in and pretty much put all local book merchandisers out of business.

 

As an only child with a somewhat introverted nature, Harlan had never found himself especially at ease socializing in groups of people.  But as the owner of a book shop, Harlan was able to have a human connection in a helpful way with a countless stream of customers who entered his store each day, directing them to books that would satisfy their needs.  Over time he became well known and liked in town because sooner or later pretty much everybody would make their way into his shop.

 

I remember the shop fondly.  It was far and away the most relaxed, and for my mind most inviting store in town.  When my mother began to ease back into the work force when her children were older, it was there in the book shop working for Harlan that she first found part time employment.

 

The book shop was also something Harlan could share with his two sons. As they grew older, both David and Richard would work part time for their father after school and on weekends.  I think was wonderful.  My own father got on a train every day to go off to an office, and for the most part I was always clueless about what his “work” involved. But through the years Dave and Rich got to see their Dad doing the work he loved, which made a life-long impression on them.  Later while he was in college Rich would spend a six week session interning with his father, learning what was involved in running the business.

 

Back at the home front, David remembers how when his father had time he would toss a baseball with him and Rich in the backyard.  A neighbor from those days recalled how the Turner backyard was the preferred gathering place for neighborhood kids to play various games, and how at times both Harlan and Virginia would come out to serve as referees for the games.

 

Harlan mounted a basketball hoop and a back board on the garage at the end of the driveway, and taught his sons to play basketball.  In sixth grade when David and I became best friends, the Turner residence became a kind of second home for me, and I remember having endless hours of fun there.   When Harlan saw how often I and other kids would gather with David and Rich to play basketball, he mounted flood lights so the fun could continue after dark.

 

One Christmas Harlan and Virginia gave their sons a ping pong table for the basement, and we spent countless hours there as well.

 

Richard remembers with gratitude the way his father always would come through for him.  There was the time when he was in eighth grade when the family went on a vacation together to Canada.  Harlan had promised his son that he would take him fishing – even though, as you will recall, Harlan had a distaste for fishing since that time as a small boy he had gone overnight with his father.   The vacation was drawing to a close and still they hadn’t been able to make time, so on the last day Harlan took his son out determined to find a place to fish.  They located a French Canadian fishing guide who barely spoke English who drove them in the pouring rain deep into the woods to a pond where they could go out in a row boat so Rich could fly fish.  Harlan surely was miserable, but he kept his promise to his son.

 

Harlan had his sons’ backs.  There’s the time Harlan wrote about in his memoirs when the elementary school principal took it upon himself between classes to comb Rich’s hair, causing Rich a great deal of embarrassment.  Apparently the principal didn’t care for the way Rich and other boys chose to wear their hair long — this was the sixties and the styles were changing in a way that displeased the principal, and so the comb routine was his way of mocking them.   Harlan paid the principal a visit and firmly told him that it was his job as Rich’s father to take care of things like his son’s hair and the principal’s job to administer the school, and the principal should confine himself to his job.  The embarrassing hair combing sessions came to an end.  I had that same principal, and I too had long hair in those days, so I am personally grateful for what Harlan did.

 

These were troubling times for our country.  Martin Luther King was leading the fight against racial injustice, soon to be assassinated, and the horror that was the Vietnam War was raging on, and young people were taking to the streets in protest.  More than most suburban dads of the time, Harlan had some understanding of how the counterculture that was arising in our country was a response in part to the moral blindness in the face of the war and racism. He listened to Bob Dylan and knew what he meant when he sang, “The times they are a-changing.”

 

Rich remembers how as a boy he found the images he saw on TV of the Vietnam War particularly frightening.  He would often awaken in the middle of the night terrified by the possibility that our country might be invaded.  He would go into his parents’ bedroom and awaken his father, and his father would calmly and patiently spend thirty minutes or so talking his son down from his place of fear, reassuring him that he truly was safe.

 

When David and I were in seventh grade, Harlan and my father teamed up to teach our Sunday School class at the Summit Methodist Church.  We don’t remember much from that class, but the memory stands out in part because as the years passed Harlan eventually stopped attending church.  His primary childhood memory of church was of a place where blacks were not welcome and the preacher railed against the evils of alcohol.  It may have seemed to Harlan like the church was continuing to be out of touch with the truly pressing social problems of the age.

 

The place where Harlan did find a spiritual connection was in music, and in particular, listening to opera.  A beautiful opera performed with passion would put Harlan in touch with his deepest emotions in a way nothing else could.  He told his sons a story about how one evening when the lights came on at the Metropolitan Opera during intermission Harlan was surprised to realize that tears were running down his cheeks.  A woman walking up the aisle noticed and paused to see if Harlan was all right.  “Yes,” he said, “I just didn’t expect to be moved so deeply as I listened to them sing.” The woman smiled and said, “Yes.  And isn’t that exactly why we come here?”

 

This story reminded me of one I heard that involved a visit my Yo-Yo Ma to an ailing Steve Jobs as he was nearing the end of his life.  As Yo-Yo Ma played Bach on his Stradivarius cello, Jobs teared up.  Afterwards he said, “Your playing is the best argument I’ve heard for the existence of God, because I don’t really believe a human alone can do this.”

 

Harlan had a sense of wonder about the world around him.  Throughout their years growing up David and Rich appreciated the intentional way in which their father invited them to share in that wonder, leading them out into the world in an attempt to broaden the cultural and intellectual horizons.  He took them on trips into New York not only to watch the Knicks play, but also to visit museums and attend theater, ballet, and his beloved opera.

 

People and relationships often change over time. And so it happened that, shortly after their sons went off to college, Harlan and Virginia parted ways, with Harlan moving out on his own.  Although their marriage did not last, their relationship remained amicable to the end.  This, in David’s words, was a “gift” that his parents gave to their sons.

 

Harlan took pleasure in setting up his apartments, giving a lot of attention to the décor in a conscious attempt to express his personal sense of beauty.  He loved vibrant color, choosing a bright red in his foyer because he said he wanted a color that would lift him up when he came home from work.  His eye for beauty also led him to be a meticulous dresser with an appreciation for cutting edge fashions.

 

Harlan felt a moral responsibility to constantly expand his knowledge and understanding of the world in which he was living. Throughout his life he read voraciously with a preference for non-fiction books through which he could become better informed.  In latter years he kept a big notebook with separate sections for Art, History, Politics and Religion in which he would type summaries of books and articles he had read, and record his own reflections on the material.

 

In 1982, just ten years after Nixon first travelled to China, and well before the Communists had loosened their tight grip on its citizenry, Harlan took a trip to explore this strange and exotic world of which westerners knew so little.  This too took some gumption on his part.  He travelled for three weeks in China and was particularly struck by the poverty that was so common at that point in the land.  His visit included a trip to the museum where the desk of Mao Tse Tung’s was on display. In an act that expressed simultaneously a bit of playful whimsy and a smidgen of defiance, Harlan slipped behind the barrier when the guards weren’t watching to have his picture taken seated where the dictator once ruled.

 

Seven years later Harlan would find it particularly moving to watch the images displayed on television from Tiananmen Square of a young Chinese man standing unbowed before a line of tanks intent on crushing the pro-democracy demonstration in which he was participating. This brave, unknown protestor, as Harlan would later note in his Memoirs would become an inspiration for people everywhere standing up for freedom against the brutality of governments.

 

After his retirement Harlan worked for the census, and volunteered to work on political campaigns he cared about.  He gave his time as a literacy tutor for a young German woman, as well as for an older Vietnamese man, meeting with them in the library to help with them with their English, both written and spoken.

 

September 11th, 2001 — the day the Towers came crashing down from the terrorist attack contained, as Harlan put it, “the most anxious hours of my life.”  His first thoughts were about his son Rich who at the time was working just a few blocks from the towers, and he was greatly relieved when he was able to reach Richard on the phone relatively quickly.

 

He had never dreamed that such a thing was possible, and his response was to set out on a personal quest for understanding of what could possibly motivate the terrorists to commit such atrocities.  He read books and attended lectures by Drew professors on Islam and the Middle East.  In his notebook he would type up summaries of what the book or lecture was about, and his own thoughts in response.

 

In the latter years of his life, as his energy waned, Harlan was content to spend most of his time at home. Harlan appreciated the neighbors he had here at Putnam house, and enjoyed serving on the board and trying out the yoga classes.  But without the Book Store to draw him out, Harlan’s natural inclination towards solitude became more and more apparent.  David would come by for regular visits.

 

An exception to Harlan’s preference for staying close to home was the standing Saturday morning date he had with his son Rich.  For the past twenty years Harlan would drive over to meet Rich at a diner in New Providence, and together they would talk over current events, or how the Knicks, or Yankees, or Duke Blue Devils were doing.  He had this odd quirk when it came to ordering food of being set in his ways. It was always poached eggs, and then only after Richard kidded him about his lack of variety did he switch to pancakes, but from then on it was nothing but pancakes. Before the breakfast tradition began, Rich had shared weekly dinners with his father at a restaurant in Summit. There too, his father’s order never changed:  always the London Broil.

 

I suspect Harlan may have been out of his comfort zone a couple of years back to accompany Rich and Louise and the boys on a family vacation to New Hampshire. Harlan loved his three grandsons, Matthew, Brendan and William but with waning energy and his solitary nature, being a grandfather didn’t come easily for him.  In his grandsons’ presence Harlan was often at a loss for words.  But as Louise noted, it was clearly important to Harlan to be there whenever he was invited to quietly share in family gatherings, and the fact that he would overcome his inclination to be the recluse in order to be present was a powerful expression of his love for, and pride in his family.  On occasion the dead pan humor that he characterized him throughout his life would emerge with an occasional zinger or wise crack.  He took special pleasure in showing up for his grandsons’ school concerts, and for an occasional sporting event.   William remembers fondly his grandfather taking him to buy his first lacrosse stick.

 

Five months ago a serious heart brought an end to Harlan’s independent living.  His last five years of his life were hard for him, as well as for David and Rich who so faithfully sought to care for their father.  It was a extremely difficult time, but it was also a blessed time, and something very important and beautiful was shared between the three of them.  This habitually independent man embraced the vulnerability and dependency that his failing physical and mental condition thrust on him.  These sons he had once held securely in his lap now sat each day by his bedside in order to help care for his most basic needs.  Relying so deeply on his sons, Harlan was very expressive of the profound gratitude he felt.  And the love that was always there but rarely spoken of – this love was now spoken of often with words that came right from the heart.