The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus


President remembers career, dreams come true

 President remembers career, dreams come true
John Schreiber
President remembers career, dreams come true

President remembers career, dreams come true (John Schreiber)

As the semester comes to an end, and he is busily making changes and finalizing university proposals for the New Year, SMU President R. Gerald Turner recently took time to reflect on the career twists that lured him away from his original plan to be a psychologist.

In his spacious, yet cozy office with thick wood molding and classic, sophisticated lines, President Turner told his story, a fairytale of extensive journeys, happiness and “new” dreams that came true.

Turner, a native Texan, was born and reared in New Boston, a little town outside of Texarkana.. His father was the junior high principal and his mother a teacher.

“My father wanted me to be a physician, and my mother wanted me to be a minister,” said Turner, “so I chose engineering and then became interested in psychology.”

At Abilene Christian University, Turner received a psychology degree and headed to the University of Texas at Austin where he obtained his Master’s and doctorate of psychology in 1975.

“As soon as I got my doctorate, I said I needed to start working on being a known psychologist, and my father-in-law said I needed to work on being a president [of any kind],” said Turner. “I said ‘yeah right,’ but I guess that stuck with me.”

Turner and his wife, Gail, also a Texas native, departed for, Southern California, where Turner worked as a psychology researcher at Pepperdine University in Malibu. It was there that he became chair his first year in order to protect two research labs that the other possible chairman would have demolished.

“When I proposed to my wife, I told her that I would be a teacher at a university or a famous psychologist,” said Turner. “It is not a quiet life, but I am certainly not a famous psychologist!”

The couple has two successful daughters, an opera singer and an actress, and a 1-year-old grandson.

“We have only missed one performance that either of the girls has ever done,” said Turner. “They are professionals now, so they can do it on their own, but we still want to be there.”

Turner and his wife left the West Coast and moved to Norman, Oklahoma, so Turner could become the vice president of executive affairs for the University of Oklahoma.

During his time there, Turner was asked by the university president to attend a meeting for him with the other seven presidents of the Big 8 schools, now the Big 12.

“Although I was not really a peer, I was the voice of the university at the meeting,” said Turner. “I remember coming home and telling Gail that I thought I could do that.”

In 1984, Turner accomplished his “new” dream. He became the President of the Univeristy of Mississppi in Oxford, Mississippi, where he and his wife stayed for 11 years.

“I was the youngest chancellor of a major university [Ole Miss] in the country for three years,” said Turner, “but the previous president was in bad health and they wanted someone young and energetic to replace him.”

Moving back to Texas in 1995 to become president of SMU was very exciting for Turner and his wife.

“My mom and dad were here and dad wasn’t doing too well,” said Turner, “so coming to Dallas worked out well.”

His parents and in-laws traveled to events at Ole Miss, and his mother attended events at SMU while she was alive.

“They all got to see me in action at some point,” said Turner.

Turner doesn’t study much psychology anymore, but uses his strategic methods to bring success to his institution.

“The key thing is getting people who can help organized and enthused about achieving something that they think is important and they understand,” said Turner, “because you can’t do it yourself.”

His assistant, Mary Jane Johnson, described him as a true Renaissance man, Turner, an educator, a mentor, a seeker of truth, a fierce competitor on the tennis court and golf course, and a lover of all kinds of music and artistic expression.

Currently, Turner is in the midst of many projects that all take up a lot of time: fundraising for new buildings, making a proposal for the George W. Bush Library, searching for a vice president and president of business and finance, and beginning the Centennial Campaign, the next fundraising campaign.

Gail works closely with her husband and continuously entertains guests who can help build the institution at SMU.

“This is a two person job in very real way,” said Turner. “Gail is a very central part in what we do, particularly when it comes to outreach in the community.”

A lot of things that happen are connected to projects that are important to the campus, said Turner, “and that is where Gail is just invaluable.”

Turner sits on the board for the Methodist Hospital Foundation, United Way of Metropolitan Dallas and the Salvation Army.

“You can do a limitless number of them, but what I try to do are things that are consistent with what I think universities should be involved in,” said Turner.

The Greater Dallas Chamber and companies in Dallas, Turner said, have implications for SMU. A lot of companies that are thinking about moving in want to know what educational opportunities are in store.

SMU and its Legacy Campus in Plano that Turner opened eight years ago hold activities with chambers and places that are trying to recruit business for Dallas.

“We try and communicate that we are the university of the city and we want to be involved with the city,” said Turner. “As a result, some of these things are just kind of necessary, but at the same time, they are very good for SMU to be involved in.”

With a busy schedule, his office door is left open when he does not have an appointment. president Turner welcomes students and encourages them to meet with him and use him as a resource.

“He is probably the most intimidating person to go up and talk to, but definitely has the greatest personality and a wonderful sense of humor,” said SMU alumna, Guy Bellaver.

Turner said that he has no plans of going anywhere anytime soon, or becoming a famous psychologist in the near future.

“My ideal job is to work hard in some place that you care about and think is important. Since I grew up in Texas, and I love Dallas and SMU, there is really no other place I want to go,” said Turner with a sparkle in his eye. “What we have done and what individuals have grouped together to do these first 10 years have made the foundation to do something better. I am ready to start the Centennial Campaign.”

With all his work on fundraising, scholarships, grants, academic programs and his involvement with the students and faculty, many people find him an invaluable part of SMU.

“His energy, enthusiasm, and dedication to SMU and to his family and community challenge and encourage all of us that work with him,” said Johnson.  “And while he is not one who accepts praise well, but readily gives credit to others, he has established a legacy of commitment and leadership that inspires all of us.”

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