Tribute: He was more than a principal, he was a friend

COCHRAN, GEORGIA: Douglas MacArthur once said, “A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.”

Donald M. “Don” Turknett, Sr., former school superintendent for Bleckley County and Murray County, was the epitome of what MacArthur was saying.

As an educator, a coach and administrator, he was consistent in his expressions, his analogies and methods of teaching his students, coaching his athletes and leading his staff. He implemented programs and brought our school system forward.

He was a man who was admired by many, and during his career, faced the politics – sometimes negative, sometimes positive – of his job with boldness and a strong sense of ethics.

Don Turknett, age 74, died Tuesday, December 24, at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida.

Truly a man of honor, Don Turknett was a man of many skills and talents. In his spare time, he built birdhouses and enjoyed sporting events. He loved his wife, his sons and was devoted to his grandchildren.

And the first time I met him, he intimidated me to a point my voice shook and my knees knocked.

I can remember it well. Our families all attended the same church, and it was right after we moved to town. I was in the fourth grade, and was waiting for my dad in the downstairs hall after Sunday School.

Mr. Don walked out of the classroom before my dad, and saw me. No words were exchanged, but he gave me this serious look. My nine-year-old self put my hands behind my back, and looked down. It was like I had been sent to the principal’s office – little did I know that later he would be my high school principal.

My knees were weak. Before I knew it, I looked up, and there was this man with dark hair, looking down at me, with his hand outstretched. “Hello, mam, I am Don Turknett.”

Any feeling of intimidation or fear or anxiety melted away, and I took his hand, and shook it. “Hello, I am Becky Holland.” I think I stuttered.

These words may be paraphrased, but I think it went something like this. “I know I have seen you around. Are you waiting for your dad?” He asked, leaning against the wall beside me.

I nodded. “Well, he is coming. How do you like Georgia?” The conversation was brief because my dad came out, and the chit chat was idle, and we went our separate ways.

And this is how our “relationship” was – we would greet each other or chat for a second in passing – and I always felt an extreme sense of respect for him, as his student, and later, during his last years as a school superintendent, when I was in my first years as a reporter.

During my sophomore, junior and senior years of high school, it always seemed to fall into my lap when we needed things for Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) to go ask him for permission. He would be standing at his post in the hallway and see me coming, and give me that ‘annoyed’ “What do you want now?” look with a sparkle of mirth in his eyes.

Nine times out of 10, Mr. Don would tell me yes. Five times out of 10, he would tell me yes immediately and tell me to go away. The other four times, he would make me work for it – just because he was having fun, but oh, he would have a serious look. Behind that tough exterior, Mr. Don proved to many of his students and staff to to be a compassionate and supportive individual.

He and Mrs. Verlie Anne were always kind to me, and very supportive of my career as a reporter– reading my pieces and offering more than the obligatory, “What a story” or “Good job.”

The last time I saw Mr. Don was at the local grocery store maybe a decade ago. He was waiting on Mrs. Verlie Anne. He saw me coming, and immediately, there was that “What do you want now” look, and then he smiled.

He will always be my favorite school principal. Mr. Don was one of the many adults in leadership roles in my life that I was blessed to be influenced by.

My guess is that a bunch of people who passed through the Bleckley County School system during his tenure have similar stories.

Funeral services will be Monday, December 30 at the First Baptist Church in Cochran.

(c)Image of Don Turknett and wife, Turknett Family/Mathis Funeral Home

Author: rlhwrites

Curator of prose and such.

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