A lover of the arts, occasional actor and part-time singer, life of the party, and mentor were just a few of the ways friends of Donald Turner remember him. A man who took an interest in almost everything and everyone, Turner died of kidney failure on Nov. 21, at the age of 56, after spending 18 years teaching philosophy at Hillsdale College.
Turner won professor of the year in 2012, and during his time at the college, touched many with his sincerity, concern, and love for life.
One of Turner’s defining qualities was his social nature, according to colleagues and former students. This nature was given a special spotlight on Friday evenings.
Professor of Biology Dan York hosted get-togethers every Friday evening for faculty, staff, and occasionally students, which faculty members and students affectionately termed, “York’s Porch.” Turner was a regular fixture at these Friday night soirees, which consisted of conversation, karaoke, and beer, and lasted for almost a decade.
“Don lived for it,” York said. “Don was always the main person everyone wanted to talk to.”
The evening get-togethers became so popular that York eventually had to find a way to signal to people when his house was open, since a few enthusiasts would show up at 5 p.m., as he was just getting home from work. York did this by turning on a neon beer sign. However, for Turner, the sign never came on too soon.
“I remember being in my kitchen, looking out and feeling guilty and thinking, ‘Oh geez,’ because I would see Don starting to circle around and around the block waiting for that sign to turn on,” York said. “After I saw him drive around two or three times I would go and turn the light on, and say, ‘Come on in, Don.’”
York fondly remembered the nights that the group was graced by Turner’s voice, with the help of a karaoke machine one of the professors brought.
“He had a great voice,” York said. “When Don got a hold of the karaoke mic nobody could get it away from him. He would just sing and sing.”
A faithful choir member at Free Methodist Church, Turner joined the choir when he first started working at the college in 1998.
Choir Director Sue McClung remembers Turner’s voice, and the joy Turner had while singing.
“I miss his voice very much,” McClung said. “He just glowed and was all smiles when he was singing.”
Turner also had a knack for joke-telling.
“Don could tell jokes, and he really liked to tell jokes quite a bit,” York said. “I remember his jokes just as much as I remember the deep philosophical conversations that we had.”
However, Turner didn’t stay for just the music and the jokes.
“If you had an event or party, he always stayed until the very end,” said James Brandon, chairman and professor of theatre and dance. “He was always looking for that great discussion.”
After missing the end to a great party in graduate school because he turned in early, Turner made sure to stick around from then on, according to Brandon.
“He was the first person to show up and he was the last person to leave,” York said. “He turned out the lights, generally, and closed up the little fire stove that we had.”
Students who usually came to “York’s Porch” were typically Turner’s, and many remember his approachability and empathy.
“Having only taken one class with Turner, I knew him best as a friend,” Brigitta Burguess ’13 said. “He would come to parties and sit out on porches and talk to students about anything and everything under the sun, from books, to comics, to movies.”
Turner was a regular attendee at many student club meetings, especially the film society, attended campus lectures and almost all fine arts performances, and even appeared in a one-act play in the Black Box Theater.
“I would always see him in the crowd at every orchestra concert and Sigma Alpha Iota concert,” Burguess said. “This meant so much to me because there were many concerts on campus all the time, and it seemed like he somehow hit every one.”
According to Brandon, “Donald really never stopped being a student.” But Turner was also a great teacher and mentor.
“He was happy and willing to talk to you about anything at any time, from Plato to Buffy to Donnie Darko,” Staci Spears ’13 said. “He always had the attention and respect of students in the classroom, and continuously supported those same students in their own personal pursuits outside of the classroom.”
Katherine Dembinski ’11 described the changes she experienced that after taking one of Turner’s classes.
“I know I am a better Christian and a better human due to my Hillsdale education,” Dembinski said in an email. “And a critical part of that was my time in Turner’s classroom.”
Turner’s interest in Dembinski’s life, both before and after she graduated, shows the genuine care that Turner showed, she said.
“He took his time to write me long, powerful, personal ‘letters’ (Facebook messages) that, looking back at them, are almost shockingly honest and vulnerable from his end,” Dembinski said. “He was not afraid to be vulnerable, even with his students, which is something I think he should be commended for.”
Professor of Philosophy and Culture Peter Blum was close friends with Turner. While Turner had his fun side, he also knew how to empathize with those around him, Blum said.
“Don exuded genuine love and concern for anyone with whom he came in contact,” Blum said in an email. “Rejoicing and weeping with others was as natural to him as breathing, and I think people found his care for them to be a gift.”
Professor of Philosophy James Stephens described this gift in another way.
“He was one of nature’s gentlemen,” Stephens said. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a more genuine person. He was someone who is open with you and wants you to feel free to be open with him.”
Stephens also noted that Turner was also a “hellaciously good philosopher.”
A man of eclectic tastes and interests, it was Turner’s friendships that left the most impact.
“Donald was everybody’s friend,” Brandon said. “He was just so easy to talk to and genuinely interested in everything. If you met Don, he was your friend. It was impossible not to like the man.”