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‘First-rate journalist’ Robert L. Turner, a Globe columnist turned editorial writer, dies at 78

Mr. Turner, on a bird-watching stroll in the Arnold Arboretum.

In a profession where writers are often accused of bias, Bob Turner was respected for being fair, even by those whose reputations withered in the face of his incisive reporting.

A measure of his evenhandedness can be seen in how he treated a judge who was disbarred in 1973 after Mr. Turner carefully chronicled numerous misdeeds. Yet when summing up that moral downfall, he opened with empathy, highlighting family financial hardships the judge faced early in life.

But then, Mr. Turner wrote, the judge “learned to appreciate wealth and power, and he acquired both.” A judge who once had struggled, he added, now “treated poor defendants with contempt.”


In a Globe career that spanned more than four decades, Mr. Turner kept close watch on how the most powerful wreak harm on the least fortunate. He was 78 when he died Tuesday afternoon in his Milton home, just months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“Bob was in the first wave of reporters hired in the 1960s who made the Globe one of the best papers in the country,” said Walter Robinson, the Globe’s editor-at-large and a longtime friend. “He was also the most thoughtful and fair-minded political writer and columnist I’ve ever known.”

Spending his entire news career at the Globe, Mr. Turner was a copy boy, an intern, a general assignment reporter, an assistant city editor, a political reporter, the State House bureau chief, and a political columnist before joining the opinion side of the newspaper.

In 1993, he took the newly created role of chief editorial writer. Two years later, he became the assistant editorial page editor, and in 2000 he was named deputy editor of the editorial pages, a job he held until taking a buyout in 2007.

“He was a total, total believer in public policy and good government, words that now sound like pedestrian relics from another era,” said Ellen Goodman, an author, former Globe columnist, and longtime friend. “And he fought those good fights for the Globe both as a political columnist and as an editorial writer.”


Former governor Michael S. Dukakis, a like-minded public policy aficionado, saw some of his own policies praised and others panned by Mr. Turner, whom he admired despite the occasional sharp criticism.

“He was my model of a first-rate journalist. He did great, great reporting — honest, straightforward,” Dukakis said. “I never remember anything Bob wrote that wasn’t fair, which is why I used to read his stuff, because you knew you were getting the real story.”

Mr. Turner was a copy boy, an intern, a general assignment reporter, an assistant city editor, a political reporter, the State House bureau chief, and a political columnist before joining the opinion side at the Globe.BERRY, Pam GLOBE STAFF

Mr. Turner’s work was honored by colleagues from the outset. In 1967, two years after joining the Globe’s staff, Mr. Turner joined Alan Lupo and William Cardoso in covering multiple passenger fatalities that occurred when Mount Washington’s Cog Railway tumbled off its elevated track. The reporters shared the Boston Press Club’s Amasa Howe Award for deadline writing.

Even more memorable for Mr. Turner was his June 10, 1972, piece calling for President Richard M. Nixon to be impeached — not because of the Watergate scandal (the break-in occurred a week later), but for “the shame of the war” in Vietnam.

“Mr. Nixon has spurned the Constitution by pressing this war without the full knowledge and consent of Congress, without a declaration of war by Congress, and in disregard of the wishes of the American people,” Mr. Turner wrote.


The president, he added, “has pursued a course of extraordinary callousness and arrogance. He has blackened the name of our nation. He has rent the moral spirit of his own people.”

The younger of two siblings, Robert Edward Lee Turner Jr. was born in Asheville, N.C., on May 16, 1943, and grew up in New Jersey, Salem, and Marblehead.

His father, Robert Sr., was born in England and was a pioneering airline executive. As a lieutenant colonel in North Africa during World War II, he had helped coordinate troop movements for the Air Transport Command.

Mr. Turner’s mother, Margaret Rogers Turner, was a homemaker and politically progressive. He followed his mother’s politics, rather than his father’s.

At Brooks School in North Andover, Mr. Turner was politically inspired when then-US Senator John F. Kennedy came to speak.

As a graduate, Mr. Turner initially harbored thoughts of becoming a physicist, a dream that ended when he went to Columbia University and was left in the dust by classmates who had been educated at the Bronx High School of Science.

“He was told after his sophomore year to take a year off and grow up,” said his wife, Otile McManus, a former Globe feature writer and member of the editorial board.

After working for the Globe as a copy boy, Mr. Turner went back to Columbia, graduated in 1965, and returned to the Globe as an intern until he landed a full-time job. Years later, he received a master’s in public policy from what is now the Kennedy School at Harvard.


He and McManus, who married in 1975, met as colleagues 50 years ago and were part of a close-knit lunch group that dined in the Globe cafeteria.

“We’d always gather for lunch every day, so we became friends,” she recalled. “We each had other romances and eventually got together. It’s nice to have a friend before you have a romance.”

After leaving the Globe, Mr. Turner was hired by the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and worked on the Commonwealth Compact, a partnership between the college, the Globe, and WBUR to foster more diversity in Boston and the state.

“He was dedicated to that, he was dedicated to social justice, and he was dedicated to economic development that was fair and equitable,” said David Cash, dean of the McCormack school, who added that Mr. Turner “was a real gift to us and everyone he worked with.”

Mr. Turner also was an accomplished bird watcher, and a devoted, if somewhat less accomplished, golfer.

“Going birding with Bob was huge fun, tagging along and hoping that you could remotely see what he was seeing,” Goodman said.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Turner leaves two daughters, Julia of Santa Monica, Calif., and Maggie of New York City; his sister, Louisa of New York City; and four grandchildren.

In view of continuing pandemic concerns, the family plans to hold a private memorial gathering.


“There’s a lot to admire about Bob, but I am most in awe of how well he managed to achieve a work-life balance, long before that became a catchphrase,” Robinson said. “He was a fine journalist and somehow also managed to excel at being a husband, a father, and a friend to so many.”

Devoted to his grandchildren — twins Abraham and Owen, and Ida and Otto — Mr. Turner “was the best reader out loud of children’s books,” said Julia, a Los Angeles Times deputy managing editor. “He had a wonderful slow and sonorous way of reading.”

At work, many of Mr. Turner’s “favorite projects were collaborations,” his wife said, and among those was “Dukakis: An American Odyssey,” a 1988 biography he coauthored with then-Globe colleague Charles Kenney. (Previously, working 11 straight days, Mr. Turner put together the 1976 book “I’ll Never Lie to You: Jimmy Carter in his Own Words.”)

Mr. Turner was “a great gentleman, a classic,” Kenney said.

“He really, really believed, I think more than anything, in the fundamental ideal of democracy, and that his job, that our job, was to inform the electorate about substance, about character — to inform the electorate so that people could make wise decisions,” Kenney said. “And Bob really devoted his journalistic life to doing just that.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.