He was born with roots deep in Calhoun County soil — his grandfather, Eugene Lauderdale Turner, moved here in 1887 and in 1910 was elected the first president of Anniston’s first Chamber of Commerce. The subsequent Turner generation founded and operated Turner Dairies, a leading agricultural operation in central Alabama.
Tom Turner, part of the third generation of Anniston Turners, graduated summa cum laude from Princeton in 1949, but he followed those roots back home to make a quiet and respected name for himself and his family beginning in the following decade.
Never a civic club backslapper, Turner lived his life away from public acclaim while remaining faithful to causes and pursuits that captured his Phi Beta Kappa intellect. He loved classical music — he loved sharing it with friends and knew a great deal about what he listened to. He was faithful to his church, First Presbyterian, as a deacon and later an elder.
He enjoyed the challenge of business, as attested to in his duties as an officer and director of Merrimac Land Co. and as owner of the Heart of Anniston Inn. He also owned a chain of business schools, including New World College of Business in downtown Anniston. He was on the board of Anniston's public library. He didn’t actually retire until about 1999, according to his widow, Zoe, whom Turner wed in 1992.
“He was very much an Annistonian,” said son John Turner, 46, of Hendersonville, N.C. “He wanted to see and wanted to be part of Anniston prospering. Even though he was not political, he certainly supported those (who) wanted to make favorable change.”
Yet for all those interests, writing — committing good ideas and good stories to paper — is the personal pursuit that captivated him the most, family and friends said. Linked to that passion was conversation with friends, and telling stories to children in the great extended Turner family.
“That’s why he left the CIA — he wanted to be a writer,” said son Stuart Turner, 45, of Atlanta, alluding to a 1951-52 period of his father’s employment by the government in Washington D.C.
In 1953 Turner married his first wife, Dale Carter of Williamsburg, Va., and they returned to Anniston to start a family. He had stories published in Harper’s and various literary quarterlies and a short story titled “Something to Explain” was included in the O. Henry Prize Stories of 1959.
A student of creative writing under the renowned teacher Hudson Strode at the University of Alabama, Turner became a published novelist in 1963.
“Post the name of Anniston’s Tom Turner on the list of successful first-time-out novelists,” Cody Hall wrote in The Star’s review. “His ‘Buttermilk Road’ is a finely crafted novel of romance and suspense that holds you right down to the climactic last chapter.”
"Buttermilk Road," some seven years in the making and set in a small Alabama town — which was not Anniston, Turner emphasized in an interview at the time — played out in the world of business, with plot points that demanded knowledge of that field.
Fellow novelist Elise Sanguinetti marveled at how Turner melded the craft of writing and technical knowledge of business.
“No writer who had not been exposed to the world of business,” she wrote in The Star in March 1963, “could possibly have written this novel and no writer who was not greatly gifted could so artistically weave this theme into such powerful narrative.”
Upon Turner’s death, Sanguinetti recalled that he had “a wonderful personality.”
He was, she said, “very easy to be with, a kind fellow and a great writer, I thought.”
Zoe Turner, who accompanied her husband to several writers’ conferences, said he had “a quiet charm about him that appealed to people. He was not a gregarious person at all.”
Anyone who might have wanted to quiz him on the coexistence of creative spark and business acumen in one man would likely have come away disappointed.
“He was way too modest,” said son John. “He didn’t like to talk about himself.”
Still, his contemporaries do have their own insights to offer.
“He was smart as a whip. He had a great record at McCallie,” said Dr. Gerald Woodruff of Anniston, speaking of the boarding school where they were classmates for a time during the 1940s.
Dr. J. Phillips Noble, Turner’s pastor at First Presbyterian Church from 1956-71, recalled Turner as “a private person” and as “an introvert.”
“That was just part of his personality,” Noble said.
Yet that trait didn’t prevent Turner from being aware of the needs of others, of the little kindnesses that keep life social.
“He was a tremendously kind person,” said Tim Knight, a nephew, of Anniston.
His uncle, Knight said, was “one of those people who would attend to the feelings of those around him. I think that was a trait he got from his brother and his father.”
Even in intellectual dialogue — a pursuit which, by all accounts, presented him with few equals — Turner didn’t press an advantage.
“He was much too much a gentleman for that,” said Dr. Robert Lokey of Anniston, who remembered with both fondness and awe the conversations he and Turner had about novels, essays and authors. “His ethos was courtly, but not in any kind of pretentious way,” he said.
Indeed, according to son Stuart, “it was almost a moral priority (for him) to not alienate anyone through conversation — to treat everyone with dignity and respect.”
The accomplishments of others came before his own, according to his admirers.
“He was a very thoughtful person,” Noble said.
Family brought out Turner’s warmest side, and his most energetic, for family was his primary concern over all others.
Charles Turner, 50, of Anniston remembered that his father became involved in whatever involved the children. When Charles was in Boy Scouts, that organization benefited from the elder’s leadership.
“He never missed a sporting event that I can remember. He was an unbelievable father in terms of being involved in our lives.”
And when Turner wasn’t working alone at his typewriter, family life brought out his most artistic side. Some families do well with a dad or uncle who reads to the children, or spins his own stories. Tom Turner took it another step and illustrated some of them.
“When we were kids he would draw a cartoon character and tell a story about it,” said Gene Knight of Anniston, another Turner nephew.
“Extremely creative and elaborate” tales would emerge from hour-long sessions with the children gathered around, recalled Tim, Gene’s brother. An ever-present fountain pen was the tool of choice, family members said.
Stuart said his father was such a good storyteller because as a writer, “he had the ability to take the essence of a story and boil it down to cocktail conversation.”
Moreover, Stuart said, “he had a good voice for storytelling.”
Caroline Turner, 52, of New York, said she remembered on family vacations at a lake being “deliciously scared” by some of the tales. Yet Turner imbued his narratives with enough intelligence, humor and heart to hear demand for their telling long after their audience’s childhood.
“I think telling a story was something he had a passion for doing,” Caroline said.
That was the case whether the presentation was oral or written. Either way, his family was his most valued audience.
“Family was first priority,” she said. “I think if it hadn’t been, he probably would have tried to write full time. I think he really loved writing.”