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84-year-old Tampa retiree honored for his service to others

TAMPA — A recent Tuesday was busy as usual for Walter Turner.

He woke up at 6 a.m. and fed his 70-year-old wife, Mamie, who has diabetes and dementia and uses a wheelchair. He did her hair, loaded her in his car and dropped her off at the Westshore Senior Center by 9 a.m.

Then the associate minister and retired educator picked up plaques for an upcoming banquet held by Pastors On Patrol, an African-American outreach organization.

He got a haircut, dropped off the plaques, then went home and made 10 phone calls for that banquet.

He drove back to the senior center in time to teach a computer class to a group of seniors, then took his wife home for dinner, where they watched American Idol and Dancing With the Stars before going to bed.

Whew. Each day is different for Turner.

But one thing remains the same: The 84-year-old devotes every day to helping others.

And people all around him have noticed.

Turner was selected as one of 25 seniors from around the country (among 160 applicants) to receive MetLife Foundation's Older Volunteers Enrich America Award for people over 50. He was to have flown last Friday to Washington, D.C., to collect his award in a special ceremony.

Helped on senior center

Mary Jo McKay first heard of Turner 10 years ago when, naturally, she needed his help.

Turner was an active member of his homeowners association. McKay worked for Hillsborough County Aging Services, which was hoping to build a Westshore Senior Center with an adult day care program in his neighborhood.

Turner met with McKay and other county officials and had "a million and one questions," McKay said. Eventually, he helped convince the county that the center was needed. When it was all over, he asked McKay: Now how can I help you?

"At that time, he was already volunteering with the (county's) health and social services program and was helping low-income and elderly people prepare their taxes," McKay said. "All of a sudden, everywhere I turned there he was.

"It seemed like every meeting I went to, when there was a problem, someone would say, 'Oh, I know someone who can help you … ' and we all came to realize that he was helping all of us. I thought, 'My gosh, does he volunteer for the world?' "

When she came across the MetLife older volunteers award application a few months ago, she knew she had the right guy in mind.

Youth counselor

Turner serves some Saturdays on a 13th Judicial Circuit neighborhood accountability board, which counsels youth who have committed first-time crimes.

He's a founding member of the 20-year-old Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality, which tackles social issues ranging from health care for the poor to better bus service to issuing ID cards to homeless people.

He does evangelical work through his church, Mount Olive African Methodist Episcopal, and volunteers for an array of charities, such as the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society.

And still, he finds time to exercise at Bally's three times a week and plant roses with the Tampa Rose Society. He tried to learn piano, but his "fingers didn't get it together," he said.

But he did master computer classes at Hillsborough Community College and tries to pass his skills on to others who are curious about e-mail and the Internet.

"He's got the patience of Job," said Lori Radice, manager of the Westshore Senior Center. "He'll work with seniors who have never even pushed a button on a computer and he'll show them three, four, five times and makes them feel completely at ease doing it."

Adopted an orphan

John Turner knew there was something special about his father, even before he was adopted.

The elder Turner took John in when he was 11, not long after his mother died of complications from diabetes and breast cancer (his father had died of liver problems a few years earlier).

At the time, Walter Turner was a single father who worked as a Blake High guidance counselor and assistant dean. Before he married Mamie 30 years ago, Turner raised John in a middle class home in Carver City/Lincoln Gardens.

John was always struck by how many people seemed to need his help.

"He was always assisting someone with his taxes or legal paperwork, wills, stuff like that," said John, 55, who is a registered nurse in California. "If people needed help understanding something, they always came to Mr. Turner's house."

John returned to Tampa last month to attend a dedication ceremony at the First Mount Carmel AME Church, where the congregation named a building after his father.

Little has changed, John noticed.

His father still spends as much time and energy helping others as he did during his pre-retirement years. John wondered how long it would be before his father, who had open-heart surgery in 1988, would be the one who needs help.

The elder Turner is too focused on his wife and others right now to worry about it. Perhaps that's what keeps him feeling young.

"I don't think about my age," Turner said. "I just keep going."

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

>>fast facts

Meet Walter Turner

Born: In Ybor City in 1924; raised in Port Tampa.

Family: Married to Mamie, 70, for 30 years. One son, John, of California. Seven grandchildren, three great-grandchildren.

Education: Graduated from Middleton High School in 1942; bachelor's degree in psychology, biology and chemistry from Roosevelt University in Chicago; master's degree in educational psychology and guidance from New York University; educational specialist degree, focusing on emotionally disturbed children, from the University of South Florida.

Working life: Retired in 1982 after 30 years with the Hillsborough County School District. Jobs included a teacher, guidance counselor and administrative dean at Blake High, a countywide social worker and a districtwide supervisor of re-education.

Some volunteer activities: Currently serves on the Hillsborough County Community Action Board, Pastors On Patrol, Carver City/Lincoln Gardens Civic Association, American Legion and the West Hillsborough Organization of Retired Teachers. He also teaches computer classes at the Westshore Senior Center, counsels first-time juvenile offenders through the 13th Judicial Circuit for Hillsborough County and helps low-income or disabled people with taxes.

Religious life: Served as a pastor for Bethel, Zion Hill, First Mount Carmel and St. Mary AME churches between 1978 and 1999.

Hobbies: Surfing the Internet, watching television, listening to music and growing roses.

84-year-old Tampa retiree honored for his service to others 05/08/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 13, 2008 9:28am]

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