MAC’S MUSINGS: Bob Turner – a man of many firsts

On Monday in the United States, one of the country’s most modern holidays – Martin Luther King Jr. Day – was observed.

The holiday honours American’s greatest civil rights leader who was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in an atrocious act of violence that shook the foundation of the civil rights movement.

In light of the celebration of King’s legacy it is worth retelling the story of Bob Turner and his battled against racism right here in our backyard.

In 1958 the 31-year-old Turner was hired as Cornwall’s first full-time recreation director.  He was the first black employee in the city’s history. A few years earlier, in 1954, Colborne (population 1,500 at the time)  made him Ontario’s first black recreation director. Some believe that he was Canada’s first black municipal recreation director.

Turner grew up in the United States, so he was familiar with racism, but he was blindsided by an attempt by anonymous hatemongers to run him out of Cornwall not long after he arrived.

Many believed that the naked racial discrimination was rooted in Turner’s campaign to have the city build a recreation centre, which some dinosaurs thought too extravagant. But the plain fact was it was all about the colour of his skin.

It started with hate-filled letters laced with profanity and the n-word. Then the telephone calls took over, some of them in the middle of the night. All of them anonymous.

One night while driving home from a city council meeting he noticed a car following him. It pulled alongside and tried to run him off the road.

Minutes after a shaken Turner arrived home, the telephone rang. The caller had a terse, chilling message. “We’ll get you next time.” Click.

Fearing for his young family’s safety, Turner contemplated leaving Cornwall.

But the forces of good stepped up to the plate.

An angry Mayor L. G. Lavigne, one of Turner’s strongest supporters, went on the radio and called out the perpetrators as “vicious, vulgar, slanderous cowards.”

The mayor’s condemnation lit the fuse. The community rallied behind Turner. Scores of residents called him, begging him to stay. Dozens of letters of support poured in to city hall.

Prior to a city council meeting, a hundred or so kids, carrying placards in support of Turner, marched in front of city hall.

An emotional, grateful  Bob Turner announced that he was staying. The community cheered like never before.

A few months later, Turner was honoured at a sold-out testimonial civic banquet.

The Standard-Freeholder noted that Turner had become an idol for thousands of Cornwall kids who had reaped the benefits of his ground-breaking recreation programs. Total enrolment in the programs soared to 9,000.

His dream of a recreation centre was realized in 1961 when the $306,000 facility on the east side of the Athletic Grounds was opened.

In late April of 1962 Turner died a few days after slipping into a coma during a minor operation at Cornwall General Hospital. He was 35. The community was in a state of shock.

Thousands of residents filed past his casket in St. Paul’s United Church.

 Weeks later, city council named the recreation centre The Bob Turner Memorial Centre. It also commissioned a bronze bust of the beloved recreation director.

Sadly, when “The Bob” was torn down city council turned a blind eye to replacing the honour. His legacy has been reduced to a mere footnote in the dustbin of time.

What a shame.

TRIVIA ANSWER   Wayne Lafave not only knew that the church steeple above the entrance to the Parkway Hotel was from St. Paul’s United Church (First and Sydney streets) but that the bricks used to remodel the inside of the hotel came from the church. The church bricks also found their way into the construction of two homes on Laflin Avenue, noted Lafave. St. Paul’s was among several buildings (among them Pearson’s Furniture/Hall and Halliwell’s garage) torn down during the re-alignment of Sydney Street and construction of Cornwall Square.

TRIVIA  This auto dealership was on Second Street West across the street from the Hotel Cornwallis.

HERE AND THERE  If you had to compile a list of the 10 dumbest (aka money wasters) projects in our city over the years, the Pitt Street pedestrian mall with that ugly waterfalls just south of Second Street would be a gimme. Another would be the water fountain in front of the civic complex that never worked and was mercifully removed. … Reader says he is convinced the dryer lint is the cremated remains of missing socks. … The odds of winning $50,000 in the record-breaking $1.6 billion (U.S.) jackpot were 1 in 913,000, but a Malone resident beat the odds. The $50,000 was the third largest prize available. It took four of five numbers plus the powerball number.

SPORTS STUFF     Derek Sprague, general manager and director of golf at Malone Golf Club, recently resigned to become managing director of Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, N.J. Sprague has been president of the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) since November 2014. A native of Malone, he spent 33 years at his hometown club. Within days of his resignation, Tom Siddon, head pro at Massena Country Club, was hired to fill the vacancy. It is a homecoming for Siddon. Before coming to Massena 15 years ago, he worked under Sprague at Malone.

FROM THE TIME CAPSULE A lot the Baby Boomer generation will recall the Cornwallis Hotel (aka The Corn) and its downstairs beverage room. They might also recall that they consumed a draught or two illegally in that beverage room. Some might recall a headline in the Feb. 9, 1977 edition of The Standard-Freeholder “Cops raid the Cornwallis, arrest 18 minors”. Some might remember the call to their parents from the old Pitt Street police station. … Reader sends along a picture of Club 23 (circa 1960s) on First Street, just east of Pitt Street. The address was 23 First thus the name. It featured local bands. It was a no-alcohol teen club and had about a two-year run. The building is long gone and the site is an empty lot.

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