Marie Turner: Winthrop’s Most Dedicated Public Servant

We often write tributes to town officials and civic leaders when they pass. But we will say this up front about the words you are about to read: There is no other person about whom we have written such a column in the past, or whom we will write about in the future, whose stature measures up to that of Marie Turner.

And it is not even close.

As we came to know Marie Turner and watch her throughout her unparalleled career of public service of almost 50 years, it became apparent that she was shaped by the extraordinary times in which she grew up. Marie was born shortly after the great stock market crash of 1929 and subsequently experienced the hardships of the Depression for her entire childhood.

As Marie would quip later, “Our family had nothing when I was a child, but we didn’t realize how  poor we were because everyone was poor.”

World War II also left its imprint upon Marie, as it did upon every American of that era. Her oldest brother, Louis Ambrose, was killed in action at the Battle of the Bulge in January, 1945. “I remember the day we got the telegram,” said Turner in an interview with the Sun Transcript 50 years later. “Our family was plunged into such sadness. Our father was never the same after that.”

The combination of hardship and tragedy combined to instill in Marie a resiliency and toughness that never abandoned her. It also taught her about the capacity of  government to make life better for its citizens as well as the need for disparate groups to work together and compromise to achieve a common goal.

When Marie took a clerical job with the town in 1963, she was a young mother of three beautiful children and a devoted husband living an idyllic, small town, Leave It To Beaver life in their then-family home on Townsend Street on Pt. Shirley. It was a far cry in so many respects from her life as a child in the 1930s and ‘40s and for many women of that era, that would have been enough.

But the 1960s also were a far cry from the 1930s and Marie Turner was soon to become a trailblazer. The zeal with which she dedicated herself to town affairs soon became clear to everyone at Town Hall. Before long, Marie became known as the person everyone could turn to for the real story behind what was going on in town matters, or if something needed to be done, she was the first person to call to get the ball rolling.

Her knowledge about anything and everything related to the town also became known to the public at large, who elected Marie to the position of Town Clerk and shortly thereafter voted to grant her life tenure in that important town position.

But the unprecedented financial crises facing every city and town, including Winthrop, that began in the early 1980s shortly after the passage by the voters of Prop. 2 and ´ would call Marie into another facet of town government, that of selectman (or more accurately, selectwoman) when she became the first woman in the town’s 140-year history to be elected to the Board of Selectmen.

She ran on a straightforward platform that was her hallmark: Finding creative, common-sense solutions to problems both big and small. (In the case of the town’s budget crisis in 1991, it was asking the MWRA to allow the town to use the $24 million from the mitigation agreement for general budget purposes instead of specific projects that had to be approved by the MWRA.)

Marie was elected in a landslide and her idea for using the annual MWRA payments for the town budget became a reality, which allowed Winthrop to weather the financial storms of the early 1990s. Winthrop was among only a handful of communities in the Commonwealth at that time that did not lay off scores of town workers that would have compromised our public schools or public safety. That legacy still exists today.

Although she lost her seat after two terms, she was returned by the voters a few years later, when it was apparent that her wisdom and experience were sorely needed.

In the meantime, Marie was named as the town’s representative on the MWRA Board of Directors, a position in which her knowledge and ability to work with her colleagues proved invaluable to the town over the years

Beyond her abilities and accomplishments as a public servant, Marie was an amazing human being. She was always “on.” She knew only one speed, and that was full speed. Her enthusiasm and zeal never waned. The word vitality best embodies a description of Marie Turner. She never was too busy to answer a question from any of her fellow citizens or to respond for a request for help. Marie was the most approachable person we ever have known. Whether someone had a problem or an idea, they knew the person to call was Marie Turner.

While it may be a cliche to offer a platitude such as, “We never will see her like again,” or something similar, in the case of Marie Turner, that is as true a statement as we can make. Marie entered public service at a time when disillusionment with “the establishment” by the Baby Boom generation would bring great change to America, including a distrust of government that would morph a generation later into Ronald Reagan’s vision of a smaller government and in turn morph into today’s Tea Party.

On the local level, this change in attitude toward government, as well as the transformation in the way we live (the rise in business travel and the demands of two, working parents in a typical middle class household) has meant that fewer and fewer of our citizens are stepping forward to serve their community.

Marie was the last of an era of public citizen-servants who worked in the town where they lived and where they raised their families and who put the good of their community first, because they realized that what was good for one was good for all. The nearby cities of Revere had the late George Colella and Chelsea had Andrew Quigley. Winthrop had Marie Turner.

We will miss Marie Turner immensely, as will the thousands of her fellow citizens who knew her on a first-name basis.

Simply stated, Marie Turner was the best, and she made all of us better just for knowing her.

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