Pete Benton Turnham
Pete Benton Turnham, fondly known as, ‘Mr. Pete” by most; peacefully transitioned to his eternal home on Sept. 30, 2019. Just shy of his 100th birthday, Pete was born in the rural Chambers County, Alabama community of Abanda on January 1, 1920 to Joseph Henry and Fannie Turnham. Pete was one of six siblings. Pete was preceded in death by both parents, three brothers – Carl, Tobe and Bill and two sisters – Mary Jo Hodges and Grace Moon.
Pete was preceded in death in 2016 by his loving wife, Kay. Meeting as students at the Baptist Student Union in 1940 at Auburn University, they went on to share 73 years of marriage.
Their 606 Moore’s Mill Road residence in Auburn, built in 1950 on 6 acres, was one of the first homes built along the then, dirt road – considered ‘the country,’ outside of Auburn. They raised their four children there, Diane McCrary (Bill), Tim (Tina), Ruthmary and Joe.
Pete adored his grandchildren: Audrey (Bob), Jenny, Lindsey, Blake, Timothy, Abby, Pete Matthew and great grandchildren: Austin (Anna), Sarah, Noah, April, Lauren & Drew.
Pete and Kay were a dynamic leadership team around their beloved Auburn. Pete and Kay served as Auburn First Baptist church planters in the formation of what is now, Lakeview Baptist Church in Auburn. Faith, family and community involvement were cornerstones of their lives together.
Passing at nearly 100 years old, in the year of Alabama’s Bicentennial or 200th anniversary, Mr. Pete lived half of Alabama’s history and participated in making much of it.
Pete joined Army Officer’s training in ROTC during WWII at Auburn, as well as becoming a member of the beloved, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which helped build Auburn’s Chewalca State Park.
Pete shipped off to Europe during the war, earning distinction in battle as a Bronze Star Medal with Valor winner under the command of the famed Gen. George Patton in the Third Army.
His assignment at the end of war was as a company commander of troops guarding the priceless art stolen and stored by the Nazis at Neuschwanstein Castle, subject of the movie, Monuments Men. Pete then went on to serve 20 years in the Army Reserves, including an intelligence assignment during the Bay of Pigs crisis. Pete’s most treasured photo was one of Gen. Patton addressing the troops standing from his jeep, named, “War Eagle.”
With the help of a social worker, and with a borrowed pair of dress shoes; Pete enrolled at Auburn in 1939, working his way through college, earning both a bachelor’s degree in 1944 and master’s degree in 1948 in Agriculture and Animal & Dairy Science from Auburn University. The author of the Auburn Creed, Dr. George Petrie, was a professor of Pete’s at Auburn. Pete always sought to live according to this creed and taught it to others for the rest of his life.
Pete served as a part of the Alabama Extension Service as a Dairy Specialist from 1948 to 1957, spent several years with Marshall & Bruce Company, and then went on to successfully start and operate his own business, Alabama Contract Sales, Inc. retiring after 45 years as its President.
In 1994, Auburn University’s Board of Trustees recognized this ‘life well-lived’ by awarding ‘Dr. Pete’ an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree for his life’s service to his state and university.
In 1954, Pete was elected to the Lee County School Board and in 1958, was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives. It was from the Alabama House that Rep. Pete Turnham would go on to lead in many areas of Alabama’s growth and progression during 40 consecutive years of service, becoming The Dean of the Alabama Legislature and retiring from service at the end of 1998.
Rep. Turnham served under 9 different governors and 9 different House Speakers, and chaired the House Education Committee and was Vice-Chair of the powerful Ways & Means Committee for many years – bringing many appropriations for education and Auburn University.
For over 30 years, appointed by both democratic and republican governors, Pete chaired, and was a leader of the Southern States Energy Board (SSEB) of the Southern Governor’s Conference. This organization helps set creative energy policy for southern state Governors. SSEB named its headquarters in Atlanta to honor Pete’s many years of devotion and leadership.
Rep. Turnham was a champion for public education, agriculture, adult and vocational education, as well as community mental health. His signature accomplishments were sponsoring bills that created a trial program that led to Public Kindergarten in Alabama, and the establishment of Regional Community Mental Health centers across the state. He championed the 911 emergency bill for the first-responder community in Alabama that established a cell phone fee and now connects every cellular and mobile phone to a 911 emergency network system. This law has ultimately saved thousands of lives.
Rep Turnham sponsored bond issues for Auburn that helped build Haley Center, the Aquatics Center and Memorial Coliseum. He fought for AU’s School’s of Nursing and Pharmacy and played a role in funding Auburn’s Vet School and Raptor Rehabilitation Center. The Gilmer-Turnham building near campus is named in his honor. Pete received the first ever Legislative Tiger Award.
Pete also worked with the Alabama Department of Conservation to locate funds to build the Lee County Public Lake, and Pete was active in establishing our local Lee County Hospital, which is now East Alabama Medical Center
The 1998 Alabama School Construction Bond Program for school infrastructure was named in his honor. Pete was honored by the Alabama Legislature near his retirement with the designation of Alabama Highway 77 from LaFayette to Wadley through his home community of Abanda, as ‘The Pete Turnham Parkway.’
Pete learned leadership as a youth through Future Farmers of America (FFA) and 4-H. He was a member of Gamma Sigma Delta Honor Society of Agriculture, Phi Delta Kappa Honor Society of Education and Alpha Gamma Rho Fraternity.
Though Mr. Pete racked up numerous achievements, awards and honors – his friends, family and constituents remember him for his humility, helpfulness, peacemaking efforts and positive attitude. On a daily basis he helped anyone with any issue, regardless of their station in life, especially assisting aspiring applicants and students at Auburn University or those persons down of their luck.
Inducted into to the Alabama Agricultural Hall of Fame, Pete’s favorite place was in his vegetable garden behind his home, where for 65 consecutive years, Pete farmed and shared the soil’s bounty with friends and neighbors – personally attending to each planting and harvest.
Pete leaves behind a loving family and generations of friends and admirers. A book about his life and career is being released by author, Ann Romine Wilder, entitled: “Mr. Pete.”
Frederick-Dean Funeral Home handled funeral arrangements. A public graveside service was held Oct. 3, 2019 at 9 a.m. at Auburn Memorial Park and was followed by a public memorial service at 10 a.m. that was held at his home church, Parkway Baptist Church in Auburn.
Following the memorial service, the family received friends in the church’s fellowship hall.
The Reverends Dr. Jeff Redmond & Dr. George Mathison officiated.
In lieu of flowers, memorials can be made to Parkway Baptist Church, Building Fund, 766 E. University Dr. Auburn, AL 36830 or the Pete Benton Turnham Scholarship Fund, through the Alabama Association for Public Continuing Adult Education, c/o Sharon Walker, PO Box 220350, Deatsville, AL 36022 or www.alapcae.com.
Pete and his family would like to especially thank the many visitors over the years and the outstanding professional team of caregivers: Myrtis Henderson, Brenda Carwell, Doris Dunn, Judy Crockett, Chisa Core, Amber Carwell, Bernice Cartlidge.
Special acknowledgement and thanks to the entire hospice team of nurses, social workers and chaplains for their outstanding care and professionalism and to the team of Synergy Home Care.
Most especially, the family salutes Ms. Carolyn Payne, who selflessly gave of herself in loving care for Pete and Kay for over 13 years. The family would also like to acknowledge the service and faithfulness of Mr. Scott Couch, who was devoted to family and Mr. Pete as a personal assistant for 28 years.