In memory of
Bill Lee Turner
In memory of
Bill Lee Turner
TURNER, Billie Lee Billie Lee Turner, age 95, Professor Emeritus of the Department of Integrative Biology at The University of Texas at Austin and a long-time resident of the capital city, passed away May 27, 2020 in Round Rock after several years of declining health and a bout of COVID-19. He held the Sidney F. and Doris Blake Centennial Professorship in Systematic Botany until his retirement in 2000. Billie was one of the nation's foremost plant taxonomists, having propelled biochemical systematicsusing chemistry to classify plantsto the forefront of the field where, before the advent of DNA, it remained the vanguard of plant classification for over 20 years. He was particularly known for his expertise in the Asteraceae, or sunflower family, especially in the U.S. desert Southwest and Mexico. Billie served as secretary to the Botanical Society of America (1959-64) and later as vice president (1970). He was president of the Southwestern Association of Naturalists in 1967 and had membership in 10 or more U.S. and international societies. At UT he chaired the Department of Botany (1967-74) as well as the Division of Biological Sciences (1972-73), a period in which the program solidified its status as a prominent center for botanical research. He won the leading research and teaching accolade of the American Society of Plant Taxonomists, the Asa Gray Award, in 1991. With a publishing career spanning seven decades, he authored over 700 scientific reports and articles, naming over 1.400 plant species, varieties, and new combinations. During a half century of teaching, he mentored or served as the major professor to approximately 25 masters and 60 doctoral students, many of whom became distinguished academics. He quintupled the holdings of the UT herbarium, turning it into a world class research facility. Born in Yoakum, Texas, on Feb. 22, 1925 to James Madison Turner Jr., and Julia Irene Harper, Billie spent his earliest years in Sanderson and always considered the Trans-Pecos his ancestral home. Following his father's railroad job, the family lived for a short while in Dunlay before settling in Galveston around 1930. Surviving childhood in that island city during the height of the Great Depression was, according to his many stories, a chaotic and exhilarating affair of debt-fleeing moves, dog bites, divorce, and deprivation, set against a ribald backdrop of speakeasies, honky-tonks, gangster-run casinos, and crime. The family's move to Texas City in 1939 brought much-needed stability. Billie participated in football and track for the Central High Stingarees, while doing janitor work in the evenings and reading the works of Shakespeare. He graduated valedictorian in May of 1943. A month later, he enlisted in the Army and transferred to the newly created Army Air Corp. By the time he finished navigation school he was among a handful promoted to officer rank (second lieutenant), and by Christmas of 1945 he had joined the 15th Air Force division stationed at the Giulia Airfield in Cerignola, on the east coast of Italy. He served as navigator on B-24s, making bombing runs on Austria and Germany, during which he was awarded the Purple Heart when his was the only plane in the squadron to return from a hell-raising sortie over Brenner Pass. An emergency landing in Switzerland on his 17th mission pulled him out of active combat. He was later stationed in Heidelberg and Straubing, Germany during occupation where he was promoted to first lieutenant. In spring of 1947, before his military service had officially ended, Billie was so eager to start college that every Sunday he snuck away from El Paso, where he was stationed, to Sul Ross State University in Alpine, to begin his studies, returning to El Paso every weekend for muster. He was aiming to be a lawyer until taking a certain class with Barton Warnock, beloved authority on West Texas flora at the time, forever changed his career trajectory to botany. Taking full advantage of the G.I. Bill, he amassed three degrees in six years: BS Biology, Sul Ross State University (1949); MS Biology, Southern Methodist University (1950); and Ph.D. Botany, Washington State University (1953). Billie began his academic career as an instructor at The University of Texas at Austin in 1953. An auspicious trip to Africa in 1956-57 with Homer Leroy Shantz, former president of the University of Arizona and arid lands expert, moved his post to tenure track. With the publication of their Vegetational Changes in Africa over a Third of a Century (1958), along with his first sole-authored book, The Legumes of Texas, a year later, Billie rose to associate professor in fall of 1959, and two years later was promoted to full professor. His skill in using chromosome numbers, and especially chemistry as a tool to classify plants, culminated in the benchmark Biochemical Systematics (1963), co-authored with his colleague Ralph Alston. Other noted works include his Plant Chemosystematics, with J. B. Harborne (1984), Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Texas (1987), and The Comps of Mexico: A Systematic Account of the Family Asteraceae (27 volumes, 1996-2017). An avid field collector, Billie instilled in his students the importance of knowing how species behave in nature. His personal collections, numbering well over 10,000 specimens, informed his research, and much of his heart was centered on UT's herbarium, which he helped grow from 200,000 specimens in 1967 when he became its director, to one million specimens by the time he stepped down in 1998. Since 1984, the collection and facilities, which the university recently named the Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center in his honor, has been housed in UT's iconic tower, a location that he took pride in having negotiated. The collection ranks fifth among U.S. university herbaria and twelfth across the nation. Its holdings from Texas, Mexico, and northern Central America are world class. By any reckoning, Billie was a character. Naturally cheerful, optimistic, and gregarious, he was welcoming to anyone who showed the slightest curiosity in the world, and even to those who did not. He was as interested in people and their quirks as he was in plants, and he was magnanimous to his students with his time, support, and pocketbook to ensure their success in what he thought was the best profession in the world. But he also did everything his way, mocked the status quo and social mores, was honest to a fault, and lacked the filters that many see as needed for civil discourse. His flamboyant innuendos and rakish behavior got him called into his dean's office on several occasions. It was a point of honor that he survived the (alleged) attempts by three different university presidents to fire him. Billie is survived by two sons from his first wife Virginia Ruth Mathis: Dr. Billie L. Turner II, of Fountain Hills, Ariz., Regents Professor and Gilbert F. White Professor of Environment and Society, Arizona State University, member of the National Academy of Science, and his wife Carol Snider; and Matt Warnock Turner, Ph.D., of Austin, writer, market researcher, and instructor in UT's Liberal Arts Honors Program. He is also survived by adopted sons Robert Lee Turner of Austin and Roy Parker Turner of Dublin, Calif., children of his third wife Gayle Langford, of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Billie is further survived by his granddaughter, Victoria Kelly Turner, Ph.D., assistant professor at University of California Los Angeles; great-granddaughter, Siena Leigh Turner-Rudy; many nieces and nephews in Texas, Alabama, and West Virginia; and by his beloved and devoted personal friend of many years, Jana Kos of Austin. A celebration of his life will be arranged at a later date. Donations in Billie's memory can be made to the herbarium that was his life's work and to which he bequeathed a large part of his estate: Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center, c/o University Development Office, The University of Texas at Austin, P.O. Box 7458, Austin, TX 78713-7458, or simply use the link: txsci.net/billieturner
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In memory of
Bill Lee Turner
TURNER, Billie Lee Billie Lee Turner, age 95, Professor Emeritus of the Department of Integrative Biology at The University of Texas at Austin and a long-time resident of the capital city, passed away May 27, 2020 in Round Rock after several years of declining health and a bout of COVID-19. He held the Sidney F. and Doris Blake Centennial Professorship in Systematic Botany until his retirement in 2000. Billie was one of the nation's foremost plant taxonomists, having propelled biochemical systematicsusing chemistry to classify plantsto the forefront of the field where, before the advent of DNA, it remained the vanguard of plant classification for over 20 years. He was particularly known for his expertise in the Asteraceae, or sunflower family, especially in the U.S. desert Southwest and Mexico. Billie served as secretary to the Botanical Society of America (1959-64) and later as vice president (1970). He was president of the Southwestern Association of Naturalists in 1967 and had membership in 10 or more U.S. and international societies. At UT he chaired the Department of Botany (1967-74) as well as the Division of Biological Sciences (1972-73), a period in which the program solidified its status as a prominent center for botanical research. He won the leading research and teaching accolade of the American Society of Plant Taxonomists, the Asa Gray Award, in 1991. With a publishing career spanning seven decades, he authored over 700 scientific reports and articles, naming over 1.400 plant species, varieties, and new combinations. During a half century of teaching, he mentored or served as the major professor to approximately 25 masters and 60 doctoral students, many of whom became distinguished academics. He quintupled the holdings of the UT herbarium, turning it into a world class research facility. Born in Yoakum, Texas, on Feb. 22, 1925 to James Madison Turner Jr., and Julia Irene Harper, Billie spent his earliest years in Sanderson and always considered the Trans-Pecos his ancestral home. Following his father's railroad job, the family lived for a short while in Dunlay before settling in Galveston around 1930. Surviving childhood in that island city during the height of the Great Depression was, according to his many stories, a chaotic and exhilarating affair of debt-fleeing moves, dog bites, divorce, and deprivation, set against a ribald backdrop of speakeasies, honky-tonks, gangster-run casinos, and crime. The family's move to Texas City in 1939 brought much-needed stability. Billie participated in football and track for the Central High Stingarees, while doing janitor work in the evenings and reading the works of Shakespeare. He graduated valedictorian in May of 1943. A month later, he enlisted in the Army and transferred to the newly created Army Air Corp. By the time he finished navigation school he was among a handful promoted to officer rank (second lieutenant), and by Christmas of 1945 he had joined the 15th Air Force division stationed at the Giulia Airfield in Cerignola, on the east coast of Italy. He served as navigator on B-24s, making bombing runs on Austria and Germany, during which he was awarded the Purple Heart when his was the only plane in the squadron to return from a hell-raising sortie over Brenner Pass. An emergency landing in Switzerland on his 17th mission pulled him out of active combat. He was later stationed in Heidelberg and Straubing, Germany during occupation where he was promoted to first lieutenant. In spring of 1947, before his military service had officially ended, Billie was so eager to start college that every Sunday he snuck away from El Paso, where he was stationed, to Sul Ross State University in Alpine, to begin his studies, returning to El Paso every weekend for muster. He was aiming to be a lawyer until taking a certain class with Barton Warnock, beloved authority on West Texas flora at the time, forever changed his career trajectory to botany. Taking full advantage of the G.I. Bill, he amassed three degrees in six years: BS Biology, Sul Ross State University (1949); MS Biology, Southern Methodist University (1950); and Ph.D. Botany, Washington State University (1953). Billie began his academic career as an instructor at The University of Texas at Austin in 1953. An auspicious trip to Africa in 1956-57 with Homer Leroy Shantz, former president of the University of Arizona and arid lands expert, moved his post to tenure track. With the publication of their Vegetational Changes in Africa over a Third of a Century (1958), along with his first sole-authored book, The Legumes of Texas, a year later, Billie rose to associate professor in fall of 1959, and two years later was promoted to full professor. His skill in using chromosome numbers, and especially chemistry as a tool to classify plants, culminated in the benchmark Biochemical Systematics (1963), co-authored with his colleague Ralph Alston. Other noted works include his Plant Chemosystematics, with J. B. Harborne (1984), Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Texas (1987), and The Comps of Mexico: A Systematic Account of the Family Asteraceae (27 volumes, 1996-2017). An avid field collector, Billie instilled in his students the importance of knowing how species behave in nature. His personal collections, numbering well over 10,000 specimens, informed his research, and much of his heart was centered on UT's herbarium, which he helped grow from 200,000 specimens in 1967 when he became its director, to one million specimens by the time he stepped down in 1998. Since 1984, the collection and facilities, which the university recently named the Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center in his honor, has been housed in UT's iconic tower, a location that he took pride in having negotiated. The collection ranks fifth among U.S. university herbaria and twelfth across the nation. Its holdings from Texas, Mexico, and northern Central America are world class. By any reckoning, Billie was a character. Naturally cheerful, optimistic, and gregarious, he was welcoming to anyone who showed the slightest curiosity in the world, and even to those who did not. He was as interested in people and their quirks as he was in plants, and he was magnanimous to his students with his time, support, and pocketbook to ensure their success in what he thought was the best profession in the world. But he also did everything his way, mocked the status quo and social mores, was honest to a fault, and lacked the filters that many see as needed for civil discourse. His flamboyant innuendos and rakish behavior got him called into his dean's office on several occasions. It was a point of honor that he survived the (alleged) attempts by three different university presidents to fire him. Billie is survived by two sons from his first wife Virginia Ruth Mathis: Dr. Billie L. Turner II, of Fountain Hills, Ariz., Regents Professor and Gilbert F. White Professor of Environment and Society, Arizona State University, member of the National Academy of Science, and his wife Carol Snider; and Matt Warnock Turner, Ph.D., of Austin, writer, market researcher, and instructor in UT's Liberal Arts Honors Program. He is also survived by adopted sons Robert Lee Turner of Austin and Roy Parker Turner of Dublin, Calif., children of his third wife Gayle Langford, of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Billie is further survived by his granddaughter, Victoria Kelly Turner, Ph.D., assistant professor at University of California Los Angeles; great-granddaughter, Siena Leigh Turner-Rudy; many nieces and nephews in Texas, Alabama, and West Virginia; and by his beloved and devoted personal friend of many years, Jana Kos of Austin. A celebration of his life will be arranged at a later date. Donations in Billie's memory can be made to the herbarium that was his life's work and to which he bequeathed a large part of his estate: Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center, c/o University Development Office, The University of Texas at Austin, P.O. Box 7458, Austin, TX 78713-7458, or simply use the link: txsci.net/billieturner
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