COFFEE BREAK: Bob Turner broke a colour barrier
By CLAUDE MCINTOSH
Any kid who grew up in Cornwall during the 1950s and 1960s has never confused Bob Turner, this city’s first recreation director, with the Bob Turner who spent six seasons on the Montreal Canadiens’ blue-line, earning five Stanley Cup rings.
Turner the hockey player was a white guy from Regina.
Turner the recreation director was a black guy from New Jersey who broke a colour barrier. He became Ontario’s first black recreation director. In fact, he just might have been the first black recreation director in not only Canada, but all of North America.
Remember now, this was a period in U.S. history when blacks were not allowed to drink from “white only” public fountains, enter “white only” restaurants and could not attend “white only” schools.
However, when it came to sending blacks to fight (and die) in Vietnam, the colour barrier was lifted.
Turner broke the colour barrier when the town of Colborne (population 1,500) hired him as its first recreation director in 1954.
Four years later, Cornwall hired him as its first recreation director.
It was a bold step for a lily-white community that in 1960 had its share of rednecks.
Turner was a graduate of New York City University (bachelor of physical education), spent a season with the Chicago White Sox one year after the courageous Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s colour barrier and toured for one season with the Harlem Globetrotters.
His legacy is a recreation program that is second to none in the small city category.
He laid the foundation.
Sadly, Turner never got to see the seeds that he sowed grow into what we have today.
He died, at age 35, on April 23, 1962.
His heart stopped during a minor operation at Cornwall General Hospital.
He was revived, but spent several days in a coma before passing away with his wife Dorris, his mom and two aunts at his bedside.
Thousands filed past his casket in St. Paul’s United Church.
He is buried in Athens, Ont.
A few weeks after his death, city council voted unanimously to name the new recreation centre that was built during his tenure after him: the Bob Turner Memorial Centre.
A bronze bust of Bob Turner was commissioned by council and placed in the showcase in the centre’s lobby.
The bust for some unexplained reason has been mothballed and next year the centre will be torn down.
City council has refused to name one of the ice pads in the new Benson Centre after Turner.
They either don’t understand the historical significance of Turner’s tenure, or …
One councillor scoffed at the notion of naming an ice pad (the names have been sold off) after Turner .
“If he (Turner) hadn’t been black, they would never have named it (centre) after him,” the councillor told this scribbler.
Yes, and if Jackie Robinson hadn’t been black nobody would have named a school after him.
Like Robinson, our Bob Turner helped tear down a barrier.
By hiring Bob Turner, the city council of the day made Cornwall a model of racial tolerance, at a time when racism, especially in hiring, was discreetly practised in this country.
Many residents of Colborne (near Belleville) attended his funeral (in Cornwall).
A few days later one of them wrote a letter to the Colborne weekly newspaper: “Bob’s life had known no limits and his deeds would be a living memorial to every man, woman and child who had known him. We, from Colborne, listened and how vividly we could recall the fine things this man had also done for our town.”
The parent of a band member said Turner was “a man who had an enormous impact on the young people of the village (Colborne).”
An editorial in the Standard-Freeholder said, “Bob Turner was one of Cornwall’s most popular city officials, particularly with children. Since coming to Cornwall, Mr. Turner organized and correlated physical, social and cultural activities in a recreation program which has been described as one of the best in the province.”
Mayor Nick Kaneb said of Turner, “He often went beyond the line of duty in performing his duties.”
While this community, sadly, seems to have swept Bob Turner’s memory/legacy under the rug, or at least is doing a pretty good job at trying to do just that, his legacy is alive and well in Colborne.
In 2009, when the local marching band, which Turner nurtured while recreation director, held its anniversary, his widow and two daughters were the town’s guests of honour.
We keep hearing that the city council plans to keep Bob Turner’s name alive with some sort of plaque at the new Benson Centre.
Sounds like a shameful downgrade from having your name on a recreation centre, but, nevertheless, city council missed an opportunity to tie this kind of announcement to its proclamation of Black History Month.