BY EMMA C. CAVIN Contributor
ST. PETERSBURG – Earlier this month, Mary Landis Jones Turner was one of four members honored by the St. Petersburg chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. for service to the organization and the community. She was celebrated for a special honor that no one else in the local chapter could ever achieve.
Turner is a charter member of the sorority. Sixty years ago, she and seven other ladies formed the St. Petersburg chapter, assisted by the local chapter of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, whose membership included Attorney Fred Minnis, Fred Burney and Louis D. Brown, Sr.
Today, she is the only charter member who is still actively engaged in sorority projects and community service. Inez Hayward, the other living charter member, moved away years ago.
Turner, née Landis was born in Oxford, N. C., just two years after her brother, who was one of her closest friends until his death a few years ago. Afraid of nothing, she learned to play whatever games her brother learned to play and went fishing, hunting and playing with the farm animals, just as he did.
As she recalled, she was seen as a real “tom boy.” That all changed when she went to the upper grades at her school. Much more time was spent studying than playing. Thus, she became a very serious student. Also at that time, she and her brother received a new baby sister.
The Presbyterian school, which she attended, served the local children who walked through snow and ice in the fall and winter or sweltering heat and rain during warmer seasons, but it also served as a boarding school for many who lived farther away.
“We walked through it all. I was never silly enough to walk any long distance by myself because it was too dangerous, but all of us who lived in the neighborhood walked to school and church together,” said Turner.
She explained that her principal was also her church pastor. He knew everyone in the community and chances for misbehaving were very slim. Of course, her dad would never have allowed them to misbehave. “He was not a talker, but when he did say something, everybody listened. My childhood was quite a happy one,” she revealed.
Always cooperative in spirit, Turner joined friends, classmates, neighbors and family in fieldwork when needed. School money was earned harvesting tobacco during the summers. Whether working as a bundler who tied the bundles of tobacco on the sticks to dry, or the person who operated the conveyor belt to move the finished bundles to the warehouse, she was a splendid worker.
No matter how hard it was, she was always applauded for excellent work. She knew that she never wanted to have to redo anything, so she worked to do well on all work assigned to her. After all, her father had always said that for any job, a person should, “do it well, or not at all.”
Fayetteville State Teacher’s College was the choice for Turner’s undergraduate studies, but after two years, she transferred to North Carolina Agriculture and Technical College in Greensboro. She graduated in 1947 with a bachelor’s degree in art and social studies. She went on to North Carolina Central in Durham for a master’s in Library Science.
Her first job as a teacher was at Kittrell Junior College in Kittrell, N.C. Since she wanted to live in a more urban area than Kittrell offered, she later took a part-time job in Oxford, her hometown, teaching military veterans while she searched for the right job. Through a teacher placement service, she was offered a job at Gibbs High School here in St. Pete, a place she had never been.
On the train ride from North Carolina to Florida, Turner met Ernest Ponder, who was already a teacher at Gibbs High School. Ponder was returning from summer studies in New York. He and his family embraced the new teacher, helped her to get settled and introduced her to many who became lifelong friends.
Renting a room from Juanita Johnson meant that she was always engaged in social activities. “There was never a dull moment,” Turner noted.
At the Gibbs High School faculty Christmas party, she met her first husband, Altha “Tubby” Jones. Jones pulled her name for the gift exchange. What he gave her was a bottle of a very exotic and expensive perfume.
She was so impressed with his good taste that she readily accepted his invitation to have dinner with him during the Christmas holidays. That first date led to many more, and by the end of the school year in 1951, they were married. A year later, their son Bernard was born.
Her job could not be held while on maternity leave because she had only worked two years at Gibbs, so she had to resign. Turner worked in Ft. Lauderdale for three years before there was another opening at Gibbs.
After 13 years, she was transferred to Boca Ciega to facilitate the integration process. She taught there for 18 years. Whether working in the classroom as an art teacher or as a librarian, she enjoyed her career in education.
A time of sadness occurred in 1971, however, when Jones died of a heart attack.
In 1973, Turner moved from Trinity Presbyterian to Lakeview Presbyterian Church. Her ability to draw strength from her beliefs and her desire to serve others kept her going after the loss of her husband. She served as clerk of session, chair of the worship committee, a Stephen minister and a member of the Care Team.
She also served on the board of the Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center, the Board of Nurses at the Pinellas Technical College, worked tirelessly with Operation Attack and numerous other community programs, including the AARP and the St. Petersburg Chapter of the Retired Educators Association.
Shortly after moving to Lakeview Presbyterian Church, she met and married her second husband, a fellow Presbyterian from Trinity Presbyterian Church. Together she and her new husband, Alfred Turner, continued to work in the church.
In 1987, he succumbed to various complications of diabetes. Again, Turner was alone. Her many activities to help others kept her from being lonely.
For more than 12 years now, Turner has been a worker at the polls, in addition to working to educate and register voters before elections.
Many people her age have given up on volunteering and helping others. Not Mary! At 89 years young, she still drives, goes walking, frequents an exercise class, does all of her church and community activities, enjoys her sorority and maintains the beautiful flowers and vines surrounding her house.
Tuner is looking forward to September 29 when she will celebrate her 90th birthday with her son, her sister, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren.