Retired UNC social work dean dies

Staff WriterFebruary 3, 2009 

John B. Turner, a pioneering professor whose name graces the School of Social Work building at UNC-Chapel Hill, has died.

Turner, 86, was the first black dean at UNC-Chapel Hill. He led the university's School of Social Work from 1981 to 1992, and the drive to build the $10 million Tate-Turner-Kuralt Building.

"He is a distinguished pioneer in social work," recalled Paul Hardin, who was chancellor when Turner retired. "A skillful and devoted dean, a good scholar, and a doer. Without him, there would have been no building with those three names."

He was born Feb. 28, 1922, near Macon, Ga. His father was an English professor and his mother was an English and art teacher. Both were college graduates, a rare achievement for blacks at the time.

Turner went to Morehouse College, where he was a senior in math and physics when he decided to join the military in 1943, according to newspaper archives. He trained as a bomber pilot, but the military's policies of segregation kept him from seeing action.

He joined the faculty at UNC-CH in 1974 as William Rand Kenan Jr. professor of social work and became dean of the school in 1981.

Turner felt continuing education was critical to those working in what he called "the helping professions."

"Without that education, we cannot even begin to hope to understand the problems we study, much less come up with ways to try and solve them -- ideas and good intentions are not enough," he said in a 1978 interview. "The moment you think you know it all, you are in trouble, and the people you are seeking to help are also in trouble."

Turner's mission was to build the school from a good one into a great one, recalled Jack Richman, who succeeded Turner after working under him for about 10 years.

"He said he was going to be trying to change the school," said Richman, "and that was like changing the fan belt on a motor when it was running, and suggested I watch my fingers."

Part of that change was the construction of a new home for the school. The Tate-Turner-Kuralt building, finished in 1995, bears his name along with those of the late Charlotte banker and social advocate Jack Tate and journalist Charles Kuralt.

Turner also worked to attract nationally and internationally known faculty, Richman said, and remained committed to the school after his retirement.

"He was a warm, caring person. His door was always open," Richman said. "He was really trying to make life better for people."

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