Last Saturday, I sat beside my husband in a pew at the Hillsdale Free Methodist Church listening to a series of eulogies for Professor of Philosophy Donald A. Turner, who passed away Nov. 21, 2018. Few of our current students will remember Turner, who retired in early 2015, but from a colleague’s perspective, Don’s retirement left a void that will never be filled.
Paradoxically, though, as I sat in that pew reflecting on the irreparable nature of our loss, I found myself thinking of another remarkable scholar, Samuel Johnson, who died Dec. 13, 1784. I never “knew” Johnson, but he lives in the pages of the literature I teach and in the magnificent biography composed by his friend James Boswell. (The power of Johnson’s words to convey a sense of his character is suggested by the fact that Jane Austen, who never met him, referred to him as “[her] dear Dr. Johnson.”)
Thanks to Boswell, we know that, like Turner, Johnson was often the first to a party and the last to leave. We know that, like our colleague, Johnson was wakeful through the wee hours of the morning: reading, writing, or preferably talking with friends — reluctant to sacrifice the pleasures of consciousness to sleep. We know that, like Don, Johnson was capable of engaging the greatest minds of his age in friendly argument — Edmund Burke sat at his bedside in Johnson’s final illness — but was also gentle and approachable to children, a protector of the weak and wounded. Indeed, like friends of Johnson, friends of Turner encountered a generosity of spirit so great that you marveled to find his heart more capacious than his mind. But unlike Johnson, who could be drawn into debate to the point of “talking for victory,” I never knew Don to talk for anything but the joy of exchanging ideas and pursuing truth. Johnson’s diary and his close friends attest to the depth of his faith in Christ, just as the service for Don showed that his life was a continuous act of Christian witness.
When Johnson died, one of his friends remarked: “He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. — Johnson is dead. — Let us go to the next best: — there is nobody; — no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.” The same can be said of Donald Turner. But I have no wish to correct Boswell’s friend by insisting, “Don Turner reminds me of Dr. Johnson!” No, as Professor of Philosophy and Culture Peter Blum remarked last Saturday, there was something in Don Turner’s character that put you in mind of Jesus, and that is really all that needs to be said.
Lorraine Murphy is an Associate Professor of English at Hillsdale College.
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