Bill Lee Turner
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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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Published in Austin American-Statesman on Jun. 14, 2020.
Memories & Condolences
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4 entries
June 17, 2020
This box asks what I would like to say about "Bill". Well, the first thing I would like to say is that he was *not* "Bill", he was Billie. I can remember being nearby when people would come visit and insist on calling him "Bill" and after they left him muttering "My name is not Bill, it's not William, or Will, it's Billie Lee!" So many people not familiar with the ways of Texas just don't understand that people really do get named, as their formal name, "Billie" or "Bobby" followed by "Lee" or "Joe"---it's always a two syllable first name with a one syllable middle name that rolls off the tongue with a poetic impetus toward iambic pentameter:

Billie Lee and Bobby Joe
Down the bayou they did go
Fixin' up to catch a fish
To put upon the supper dish...

and so on. Anyhow, Billie was my professor, my mentor, my friend, my fellow informal poet.

Billie was sometimes was so busy thinking about plant names he couldn't remember people's names and often referred to us students as "whatchamacallit" or "whatchamadoodle"....it was somewhat of an honor if you were the one he came up with a new "whatchama..." form for. When he introduced me to Jeffrey Harborne, I was "whatchamadiggle".

I suppose everyone experienced Billie differently; I was his student in his sort of middle-years of professoring, and so didn't have the completely wild adventures that some of his earliest students had with him, but I got to spend a summer staying in his attic in his house in Big Fork, Montana, where he and Susan and I would sit on the back porch overlooking the Flathead River listening to Willie Nelson --- certain of Willies songs will always evoke that memory of Billie for me. Or, sometimes, we'd sit in the only bar in town (Billie hardly ever drank anything other than water or a Coke) and write poems on napkins and pass them back and forth to each other. If the music was good, Billie would dance; he's the one who taught me to "follow" properly in country swing, although he had to twist my arm behind my back to do it.

Professionally, I owe more to Billie than it's possible to say. His letters of recommendation were something else, and when I wrote such letters for my own students later on, I always tried to emulate his positive honesty. Nothing he ever said was untrue, but boy, he sure could make a person sound like they walked on water; the letters were also always carefully geared to the peculiarities of the institutional recipient. The year I finished at UT, I applied for something like a dozen jobs, and I think he picked out the one that he thought I should have and wrote that letter in a way that got it for me. His marvelous ability to match extolling his student and cajoling his distant colleagues was only one of his many unique traits.
Graduate school was hard work, but it helped immeasurably to know that Billie was there in the herbarium, working the same late hours that we students were. I can remember sitting there in the evenings, down the bench from him, both of us poking and prodding at specimens under scopes, having long, drawn-out arguments about the plant characteristics we were seeing, or telling jokes, or talking about life experiences. It always seemed to me that Billie had too many advisees at once, but he knew each of us well, and always had time for us, so I guess it wasnt too many after all. He could---and would---tease almost unmercifully, but when you asked him to stop, and really meant it, he would. There wasnt a mean bone in his body, although he simply could not resist saying something entirely embarrassing to someone, just to see how they would react. If you were Billie-savvy you learned to either answer in kind or to put your foot down and tell him to mind his manners; if you werent, you provided the entertainment, because Billie would just keep on keeping you flustered.

I regret that I did not see Billie again after about 1995, but I am so glad that Ron Hartman and I put together a celebration of his life and production of PhD students when the Botanical Society of America met in Fort Collins, Colorado, in the late 1980s. We managed to gather all but two of his former students (up to that date) as well as his current ones, and I remember thinking that the group of us were really very much the core of the American Society of Plant Taxonomists at the time; collectively, Billies academic posterity is indeed very large and has had an influence on the field that is likely not exceeded by any other plant systematics professor of the twentieth century.

Billie was as genuine a person and personality as I have ever known. If integrity is being true to oneself, then he had integrity. He was truly a Texan: he thought big, he lived big, and he talked big, but he wasnt just talk---he was real; he was as real as Texas gets. Fare well, Billie, see you in the Elysian Field, hunting those DYCs.
Meredith Lane Brown
Student
June 17, 2020
I enrolled at UT intending to be a writer, having been Editor-in-Chief of my high school paper. My very first class at 9 AM on the first day of university was Biology with Billie Lee Turner. Well, I'll never forget that raucous, inspiring lecture. He was having so much fun, and he was so smart! By 10 o'clock that day I decided to go into life science. Over the years I met other people with similar stories--Billie Lee changed their lives as well. How lucky we were! Much later I got a chance to look him up and thank him. He was still working, still rowdy. Thank you, sir, and God bless.
Dr. Yvonne Baron Estes
June 14, 2020
As the daughter of one of Billie's colleagues, I remember chance encounters with Billie over the years at the Botany Labs building or at departmental events Id attend with my parents. Even as a young girl he made an impression on me. I will always remember him for the colorful character that he was. This obituary captures him well. My condolences to his family. Sona Spear Nast
Sona Nast
Acquaintance
June 14, 2020
Billie Turner June 2017
I first met Billie Tuner the summer of 1961 before I was to enter
UT as a freshman botany major. I knocked on his office door and said
that I was interested in angiosperm systematics. After telling him all
about my desire to become a plant systematist he said: My God young man
you know more already about what you would like to do than most of my
graduate students! Come with me and I will give you a desk in the
herbarium that you can use while you are a botany major. From that
moment on Billie took me "under his wing" and treated me like one of his
graduate students. I particularly enjoyed working with him to identify
new herbarium specimens. I went on a field trip to Mexico with him and
some of his graduate students. I often went with him and Ralph Alston to
have coffee in the cafeteria near the Botany Building. When I got
inducted into Phi Beta Kappa I invited Billie and his wife Ruth to the
induction ceremony and dinner instead of my own parents. If he had not
been in my life I would never have gone to Harvard for my doctorate and
had my career in systematic botany. I have so many memories of Billie. I
loved it that I was able to have him as a visiting professor for a
semester when I was a faculty member in the Botany Department at
UMass/Amherst. Over the years Billie and I always kept in touch by
phone, and he must have sent me dozens of clippings from my hometown
newspaper the Taylor Daily Press. I am so glad that I was able to have
a nearly two-hour long talk with him in his nursing home in Austin when
I visited Texas for the first time in more than 20 years in June, 2017.
Talking with Billie then was the highlight of my trip back to Texas.
Billie Turner was undoubtedly one of the most important people in my
life. ---Dr. James (Jimmy) Walker, Professor of Biology Emeritus,
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Dr. James ("Jimmy") Walker
Student
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