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Ralph Turlington, former education commissioner, House speaker, dies at 100

The liberal Democrat served as speaker from 1966 to 1968 and both the Department of Education headquarters in Tallahassee and a prime building at the University of Florida, his alma mater, bear his name.
Ralph Turlington, shown here in 1967, served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1951 to 1974. From 1974 until 1987, he served as Florida's commissioner of education.
Ralph Turlington, shown here in 1967, served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1951 to 1974. From 1974 until 1987, he served as Florida's commissioner of education. [ Florida State Archives ]
Published May 15, 2021|Updated May 15, 2021

GAINESVILLE — Former Florida House speaker and education commissioner Ralph Turlington, who pushed through the state lottery, corporate income tax and open records law, has died at 100, his family said.

Turlington represented Alachua County in the House from 1950 to 1974 before being elected to three four-year terms as education commissioner. He died on Wednesday in North Carolina, his son Donald Turlington told the Gainesville Sun.

The liberal Democrat served as speaker from 1966 to 1968 and both the Department of Education headquarters in Tallahassee and a prime building at the University of Florida, his alma mater, bear his name. Along with state Sen. William Shands and state Rep. Osee Fagan, he secured a huge prize for their hometown of Gainesville: the initial funding for a medical center at the University of Florida — now the statewide system known as UF Health, according to the Sun.

He wrote and pushed through bills that instituted the Government in the Sunshine law, which requires Florida municipalities and agencies to meet in public and to make most records available. It has been seen as a national model.

He reveled in the gritty work of legislation, his son, Donald Turlington, told the Gainesville Sun — the debates, the corralling of votes, the persuasion.

“Turlington had a flair for words, with his political colleagues often asking that his speeches be entered into the official record after the day’s proceedings,” the Sun reported. “And unlike the name-calling antics seen in today’s different-corners-of-the-universe politics, Turlington could disagree with his fellow elected officials in a most civil fashion. Perhaps not quite convinced of a representative’s veracity, he might say something like, ‘That’s the most dishonest thing I’ve ever heard from an honest man,’ Donald Turlington said. ‘Even if he was cutting you, he would not let you bleed too much.’”

As education commissioner, Turlington successfully campaigned for the lottery in 1986, saying it was needed to help fund the state’s public schools.

Turlington was born in Gainesville in 1920. A UF business graduate, Turlington was business manager of the Florida Alligator and later elected to leadership fraternity Florida Blue Key, the Gainesville Sun reported. He went to Harvard University and earned a master’s degree in 1943 and soon went to Europe as part of the U.S. Army.

He was married to the former Anne Gellerstedt until her death in 2003. They had two children.

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