Famous former television news anchor, Tom Brokaw, wrote an iconic book entitled The Greatest Generation. The 1998 book chronicles the unique character of a generation of Americans. Brokaw attempted to capture the unselfish contribution of our World War II Americans who built our marvelous country.
As Brokaw says, “They will have their place in the ledgers of history, but no block of marble or elaborate edifice can equal their lives of sacrifice and achievement, duty and honor as monuments to their time.”
Pete Turnham of Auburn passed away on September 30, 2019. Mr. Pete epitomized the best of the greatest generation. He was three months shy of 100 when he transitioned to be with his maker and his beloved wife, Kay, who preceded him in death in 2016. While on earth, he lived every day to the fullest. He truly made a difference during the century he was here.
Mr. Pete represented Auburn and Lee County in the Alabama House of Representatives from 1958 to 1998. This is the longest tenure in state history. Due to his longevity and tenure in the Legislature, Mr. Pete became known as the “Dean of the House.”
Like many of the greatest generation, Pete served in World War II. Pete shipped off to Europe during the war earning distinction in battle as a Bronze Star Medal and Valor award winner under the command of the famed General George Patton in the Third Army. His assignment at the end of the war was as a company commander of troops guarding the priceless art stolen and stored by the Nazis at Neuschwanstein Castle. This story was the subject of a famous movie entitled, “The Monuments Men.” You might say that George Clooney played the part of Pete.
Pete came home, raised his family and built a legacy in his beloved Auburn. Like many ambitious men of the greatest generation, Pete became successful in business. However, Mr. Pete is best known for his 40 years of service in the Alabama Legislature. Most of that time he was on the Ways and Means Committee, which appropriates the state education dollars. He made sure that Auburn University got their fair share of these dollars. He retired as the Dean of the House in 1998.
It was one of the greatest privileges and experiences of my life to sit beside Mr. Pete in the Legislature for 16 years. We became best friends for life. When I arrived as a freshman, 30-year-old legislator in 1982, Pete had already been a representative for 24 years. He had known me as a youngster when I spent my summers paging in the House. When I arrived, Pete took me under his wing and told me I was going to sit by him. Therefore, I immediately left the other freshmen on the back row and went to a prime seat near the front of the chamber next to the Dean of the House.
You get to know someone well over 16 years. Pete Turnham was the consummate gentleman. I never heard him say a harsh word about anyone or use any profanity.
He loved his wife, Kay, his children, his Baptist Church in Auburn, and Auburn University. He also loved his vegetable garden. True to his agricultural roots, he grew his own produce in his six acres behind his house. Pete’s favorite place was in his vegetable garden where for 65 years he personally attended the planting and harvesting. He had quite a green thumb. His garden was famous and he shared the bounty with friends and neighbors.
Like many great men of that generation, he genuinely loved and cared about people and helping his fellow man. He helped and cared for his folks in Lee County on a daily basis, especially assisting students at Auburn University.
I closely watched Pete helping aspiring students and his constituents. He helped a lot of folks in Lee County and he did it without fanfare, whether it was giving someone down on their luck vegetables from his garden or getting their road fixed. Everything he did was with humility, helpfulness, peace-making efforts and a positive attitude. Pete Turnham was a true Christian gentleman.
Pete Turnham served under nine different governors and nine different House Speakers. He was the only legislator to serve during all the Wallace administrations. Passing at nearly 100 years old in the year of Alabama’s Bicentennial 200th Anniversary, Mr. Pete lived half of Alabama’s history and participated in making much of it.
Pete Turnham was one of the greatest of the Greatest Generation.
Next week we will commemorate the other Alabama political legends who passed away this year.
See you next week.
— Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the Alabama legislature.