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A man who overcame the odds
Mr. Turner - photo by Photo submitted

This is a story about a man who quit school in the sixth grade, went back and graduated high school at age 26, received a college education and later a masters degree, attended seminary, preached and later became a teacher and principal. He came in contact with thousands of young people in Effingham County while in the school system and helped them start their lives with a good education. This is his story told by his son, Norman Turner.

My father, T. J. Turner, was born Feb. 13, 1914, on a cold day in Henry County. It was too icy for the doctor to come attend his birth and a woman in the area delivered him.  

His family lived on a farm until he was 6. He was sent to school at age 5 and sent home from the two-room school because there were not enough young people to have a first grade. At age 6, they moved to nearby Hampton. His father farmed and later ran a small grocery store. He attended school until the sixth grade when the teacher was going to punish him for something he did not do, so he quit.  

Times were hard and he soon got a job at the cotton mill in Hampton, making 20 cents an hour, working 12 hours a day, earning $2.40 a day (he thought he was getting rich making all that money).

The Goodrich Tire Company purchased some of the machinery but had no one who could run it. He knew how to run the thread machine and left to operate a machine making thread for car tires in Thomaston in a mill town known as Silvertown.

While in Thomaston he began to attend the Methodist church. It was there that he realized he needed to go back to school. He was 22 years old when he went back to get a high school education. He got into the “Textile Institute,” which was a Methodist sponsored school in Spartanburg, S.C.  

At this school he worked and went to school. For two weeks a month he worked night shift and attended school by day and for the next two weeks just attended school. He completed three years of high school there.

Receiving a scholarship, he completed his last year (working for the school also while attending) at age 26 at Tallulah Falls High School in Rabun County. For two years, my father then attended Reinhart Junior College at Waleska, north of Canton.  

After attending Emory University in Atlanta for two more years, he got his B.A. degree in 1943. He completed another year at Emory after entering the seminary.  

In need of money, he received a scholarship which required that he preach some to qualify. The Methodist Church sent him to Port Wentworth, where he found out upon arrival by bus, greeted by Rev. Vernard Roberson, that he would preach for a five-day youth revival for which he was unprepared but made it through the week.

Several months into his service he was sent to Tybee Island. It was summer and he had never seen the ocean. He was assigned to the Methodist Church (which was later destroyed by a hurricane) on one end of the island and living arrangements on the other end.  

He explained that he had no transportation and could not easily fulfill the duties. Rev. Roberson loaned him his own brand new bicycle to get to the church and visit his members.

By the middle of 1944, he was planning to go back to Emory to use the scholarship. Rev. Roberson talked him into filling in for a preacher who was ill at Garden City Methodist. During his time there he went home to visit his family in Hampton and borrowed money from an Atlanta bank to purchase a used car, allowing him to have transportation and his first automobile.  

After three months, he was sent to Collins in Tattnall County, where he had a circuit of five churches preaching at three churches every Sunday.  While there, he was asked if he would teach because many teachers were gone to war.

He was very busy teaching at high school and preaching and after a while requested a transfer.  

With the war at full swing, the shipyard at Savannah was building ships to support the war. The Works Projects Administration built a temporary city south of the shipyard. This was a housing complex off President Street in Savannah. He was sent there and preached in two churches and also held services in a third makeshift church in a recreation building. All three churches were interdenominational. The war ended and he preached there until the summer of 1946.  

In the summer of 1946, my father attended the Georgia Teachers College (now Georgia Southern University) in Statesboro to get credits to fulfill requirements to become a teacher.  

In the summer of 1946, he purchased a two-story boarding house at Tybee that he named “Turner’s Lodge”. He ran this during the summers until he sold it in 1949.  

In 1946 he came to Springfield to teach at Effingham Academy, the high school in Springfield. During the year he met Mary Zoller. They married on Thanksgiving Day in November 1947. He had become principal of the Egypt community school in the summer of 1947. He and his bride moved to Egypt in December.  

In 1949, my father became the principal at Clyo School (elementary and high school). My parents moved to Springfield, renting a part of the Anderson House behind the present day Ulmer Park. During the summer of 1949, they relocated to Athens so he could attend summer school at the University of Georgia.  

On Dec. 10, 1950, their son, Norman Vincent Turner was born. They moved from the Anderson House to Judge Paul Shearouse’s house near the old Baptist church. For the following three summers, the family relocated to Athens and my father finally got his masters degree in education.  

They were members at Springfield Methodist Church. When the sanctuary was being rebuilt, the Turners purchased and salvaged lumber from the building and built a home in 1953 on Ash Street. Their daughter, Jocelyn Turner (now Porter) was born on May 26, 1955.  

In the summer of 1956, T. J. Turner became principal of the Springfield Elementary School and his son started first grade there in September of that year. His daughter began school in 1962. 

In 1967 he asked the school board if they could hire my mother, Mary Z. Turner, as secretary (she retired in 1986 after working 19 years in that capacity). My father retired in 1974 after 29 years of teaching, one year in Tattnall and 28 years in Effingham County).

The following was contributed by Susan Exley.
Uncle T. J. retired and enjoyed his church, Springfield United Methodist, where over the years of his long life he served in many capacities including: Sunday School teacher, Sunday School superintendent and official board member. 

He attended faithfully for as long as he was able. He enjoyed reading, gardening and swimming as hobbies. By 1994, his health had began to fail, and he grew to enjoy television including football, religious services and watching the stock market reports as he had to stay indoors more.  He had myasthenia gravis, a disease causing muscular weakness.  Gradually, he became confined to his home as he became more debilitated. 

His wife faithfully attended his every need. During nearly all of this time his mind was sharp and he enjoyed the visits of family and friends. He vividly recounted school and other “tales” on these occasions. 

On July 19, 2007, Uncle T. J. Turner died in his own bed in his home that he enjoyed so much. He had been completely bedridden for a week and his wife was no longer able to care for him. Arrangements had been made to transport him to a nursing home. 

His wife and daughter found him unresponsive as they brought him lunch and he passed away, ironically about an hour before he was to leave. 

He was a man of great faith and integrity, and I am sure his prayers were answered. He left to cherish his memories, his beloved wife Mary Z. Turner; daughter Jocelyn Porter and husband Richard; son Norman and wife Mary; granddaughters Amy and Audry Turner and several nieces and nephews. 

The Historic Effingham Society extends our sincere sympathy to the family in their loss. This man led a life of service to his fellow man having a lasting impact in the roles of preacher, teacher, husband, parent, sibling, grandfather, uncle, neighbor, friend and church member.

He was a good Christian man who influenced many and left his imprint on our world where he affected thousands to whom he educated and ministered. He truly was “a man who overcame the odds” and his life story can be an inspiration for others.

Written by his son: Norman V. Turner, Chief Warrant Officer, U. S. Army, Retired. Edited/condensed and continued by Susan Exley, niece of Mr. Turner.

You can read in its entirety “A Tribute to my Father T. J. (Thomas Joseph) Turner ‘A Man who Overcame the Odds’ ” written by Norman Turner in the files at Effingham Museum.

If you have photographs, comments or information to share with Historic Effingham Society, please contact Susan Exley at 754-6681 or email: