Pioneer Turner Dies

John Turner John Turner was a charter member of NASW, having joined in 1955.

NASW Social Work Pioneer® John B. Turner passed away on Jan. 30, 2009. He was 86.

Turner was the first African American to serve as a dean at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill when he was chosen to lead the School of Social Work in 1981. He remained in the position until his retirement in 1992. His career in social work, however, spanned more than 40 years. His numerous leadership roles helped to enhance the national recognition of the School of Social Work at the university.

According to UNC officials, Turner is largely credited for mapping out the graduate program’s road to prominence, including the construction of a $10 million building in Chapel Hill. That site — the school’s current home — still bears his name today and was the first academic building on campus to be named for an African-American.

He was a charter member of NASW, having joined in 1955.

Turner began his career as program secretary at the Butler Street YMCA in Atlanta. World War II started while he was in the midst of his undergraduate curriculum at Morehouse College in Atlanta. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, becoming a first lieutenant and a pilot. He was trained as one of the country’s first African American aviation cadets at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. After the war, he obtained his bachelor’s degree from Morehouse and went on to secure his master’s degree in Social Administration at Case Western Reserve in Ohio.

In 1950, Turner became an instructor at Atlanta University. He was an area worker for the Welfare Federation of Cleveland where he later became director of field services in 1959. During this time he was also working on his doctorate degree in social work at Case Western and began his climb up the ladder of academia. From 1957-67, he was instructor, assistant and associate professor, and professor in the School of Applied Social Sciences at the school, and served as its associate dean and dean from 1968-73.

Turner served many assignments in his career. Several summers were spent as a visiting lecturer at the University of Toronto, McGill University in Montreal and Smith College and as a Fulbright Scholar in Cairo, Egypt. In 1971, he was a short-term American Grantee of the U.S. State Department in Zambia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. From 1966-71, he was consultant to the National Urban League and from 1972-75, he served as consultant in an International Research Program in Cairo. In 1977 he was a visiting professor and consultant at the University of Minia in Egypt.

Beginning in 1970, Turner’s international focus included participation in the International Council on Social Welfare as a member of the U.S. Committee. He was a charter member of the International Association of Applied Social Scientists.

His professional and community organizational activities were also numerous. They range from agencies in the social welfare field and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences to the Cleveland Institute of Art. He also had a short sojourn into politics as an elected city commissioner in East Cleveland, Ohio.

Dennis Orthner, a UNC social work professor, said Turner was a “bridge builder” between government leaders and service providers. “John was an incredible scholar and advocate for high quality and effective human services,” Orthner said.

Turner authored numerous articles and books and served as editor-in-chief of the 17th edition of the Encyclopedia of Social Work published by NASW. At the time, the encyclopedia consisted of two volumes with 192 articles, 106 biographies and 54 statistical tables. He authored the U.S. Report to the International Conference on Social Welfare in Kenya in 1974.

UNC social work Dean Jack Richman said Turner was a pioneer in social work education and at UNC. “Even through his retired years, John remained connected and involved in the school,” Richman said in article posted on the school’s Web site. “We often met for lunch, and he offered his advice and counsel concerning the development and life of the school. I will miss Dean Turner as will everyone who had the good fortune to know and work with him.”

Get more information: NASW Foundation.