Educator and public official, Edwin Turlington dies at 89
Published: Tuesday, January 3, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 2, 2006 at 11:47 p.m.
Former Gainesville mayor and Alachua County Commissioner Edwin Baldwin Turlington, who served 25 years in public office but was most proud of his life as a teacher, died Monday at Gainesville Health Care Center. He was 89.
Turlington was hospitalized in early December and diagnosed with congestive heart failure, said grandson Thor Wishart of McIntosh.
"The doctor told us he had a short term," Wishart said. "We're just grateful he didn't suffer a long time."
Known to many people as "Mr. Ed" or "Mr. T," Turlington served on the Gainesville City Commission for five years starting in 1963. In 1968 he was elected to the first of his five four-year terms on the Alachua County Commission, a Democrat who earned a reputation as a pragmatic populist.
"Ed was an amazing man," said John Schroepfer, who served on the County Commission with Turlington from 1980 to 1984. "He had an instinct for what the people wanted, and had a way of presenting that view so it would give you pause for thought even if you did not see it his way. He was very insightful and people-conscious."
On Wednesday, Turlington and his wife, Elizabeth, would have celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary.
Mrs. Turlington said her husband rarely talked about his accomplishments in local government after he left office in 1988. When he did look back, she said, it more often was to reflect on his life in the classroom and his agriculture students at Gainesville High School and Santa Fe Community College.
"He was really interested in helping boys who were failing at school get back on track," she said. "The times were pretty hard for some of his (vocational-agriculture) students, and he'd buy their lunches, or shoes or give them money to keep going."
Turlington cultivated his love of agriculture all his life. He began a lifelong hobby of beekeeping when he was 5, and later taught a course in it at SFCC. Mrs. Turlington said the Alachua County farmer's market was one of his pet projects during and after his time on the commission, and he worked to help it succeed.
Turlington, one of six children, moved from Vanceboro, N.C., to Gainesville in 1916 when he was 9 months old. His father taught agriculture at the University of Florida and raised his family on a small farm on NW 13th Street that today is the site of GHS. His mother, also an educator, worked as a UF librarian for 10 years after World War II.
Turlington was a lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Navy during World War II, serving aboard a troop-landing ship in the South Pacific.
He attended UF's College of Agriculture, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees and completed most of the work for a doctorate.
Turlington started teaching vocational agriculture at GHS in the late 1940s, teaching for a brief time at the school after it moved to his family's former homestead on NW 13th Street.
"His great strength was the students," said Turlington's younger brother, Ralph Turlington of Durham, N.C., who served 12 terms in the Florida House and as the state's Commissioner of Education, and for whom UF's Turlington Hall is named. "Those students were all very loyal to him all throughout his life."
He said his brother "had as much a public-servant attitude as anyone I ever knew. I never knew Ed to have a thought about public service for selfish exploitation."
Wishart said one of his grandfather's favorite sayings was, "Whatever is afforded the big man or the person with a lot of money should also be afforded to the little man or people with no money."
"He treated everyone equally and gave the same access to people whether they were wealthy or not," Wishart said.
Jack Durrance served at least two terms on the County Commission with Turlington but has known the family since his high school days.
"When he was in public office, Ed was a thinker of an independent nature," Durrance said. "We had agreements and disagreements, but it was always in the best interest of the community on both our parts."
Growth issues were a big part of the agenda during Turlington's time on the County Commission.
In an interview with The Sun upon his departure from the County Commission, Turlington recalled in particular the debate in the 1970s over development of The Oaks Mall and the Newberry Road/Interstate 75 interchange.
Turlington was once described in The Sun as a county commissioner who was more comfortable "in the low-profile stance - quiet, contemplative, the listener-type." But in 1973, Turlington dropped what a Sun reporter called a "bombshell" during a commission meeting.
He proposed a population ceiling for the county, which in 1973 was about 115,000 but was projected to be 225,000 within 20 years. Turlington also proposed a new policy that would require developers to pay additional costs and to provide open spaces in conjunction with new developments.
"We have to know how much we can stand," Turlington said during the 1973 commission meeting. "Some people around here would like to see the university at 50,000. I wouldn't. As far as I'm concerned, the 25,000 there now is big enough."
Durrance said he thought some of the planning decisions made during Turlington's time on the commission "did help in land use, and helped the county grow in a more comfortable fashion."
John Zazo of Chiefland said Turlington, whom he met as a student at SFCC in the late 1960s, was his mentor.
He said that when he returned from Vietnam, he lacked direction and it was his agriculture professor who helped him find a path.
"He kind of shaped my life," said Zazo, who after earning a degree in agriculture at UF went into teaching, and now teaches technology at Chiefland Middle School. "He was phenomenal, the way he understood young people and had this desire to see them succeed and become something in society. He was such a motivating person."
He said Turlington had a deep understanding of human nature, and how to handle people without offense.
"He never held a grudge about anybody or the issues," Zazo said.
He said he and Turlington remained close, and the teacher often demonstrated his thoughtfulness to his former student. When Zazo visited the Turlingtons at their river home, he said, "Ed would promise to unhook the phone so as to not get commission calls."
Former Alachua County Commissioner George Dekle said the man he always called "Mr. Turlington" was one of the people who encouraged him to run for office. He followed that advice and ran against Turlington in 1984 - and lost.
"But every time I would see him, following that race, he would always encourage me to continue to participate and to run for office again," said Dekle, who won a seat on the County Commission in 1988.
"As a County Commissioner, he served with grace. He was always a gentleman, no matter what the issue," he said. "He strived for fairness in his decisions and was a believer in compromise."
In addition to his wife and brother, Turlington is survived by two daughters, Ann Turlington Lewis of Branford and Betty Gail Turlington of McIntosh; a sister, Lillian McIntosh of Minneapolis, Minn.; four grandsons and five great-grandchildren.
A spokesman for Williams-Thomas Funeral Home said the family plans to hold a memorial service at a later date.
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at 352-374-5042 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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