Turner High marks 50 years

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Frank Schultz
Sunday, October 13, 2013

TOWN OF BELOIT—It was a tense time in the early 1960s when rural residents decided to tax themselves to build a high school.

Connie (Babcock) Turner remembers her father, a school board member, and mother talking about the decision to build F.J. Turner High School.

“I just remember a lot of arguments,” she said.

Fifty years later, F.J. Turner High School is going strong, although the politics of building schools has not gone away. More on that later.

The intervening years, population growth and untold numbers of graduates have created a community unlike what went before. The school has become a community focus, as was evidenced by the hundreds who attended the athletic booster club's annual pancake breakfast fundraiser Sunday.

“It's a family affair,” said Emett Harold, a town firefighter and the husband and father of Turner graduates.

Like many at the event, Harold is a graduate of the big neighboring high school, Beloit Memorial.

“It's a smaller venue,” Harold said of Turner. “You can keep track of your kids better. Everybody stays involved.”

Fellow firefighter Norm Nitz, a 1982 Turner grad, said his favorite memory—as unbelievable as it might seem—is hot lunch.

“The chili—you always knew you were going to have a sugar doughnut with it,” he recalled.

He also loved saucer-sized “snappy pizzas.” Kids would have contests to see how many they could eat.

To back up his claims of the fabulous fare, Nitz brought in Tina (Jensen) Dowdy, Class of '85. The two had a great time talking about lunchroom food.

“I can still taste it,” she said with obvious relish.

Dowdy's favorite memory was the homecoming parades, which don't happen anymore.

Each class would spend weeks building a float, and the competition was intense -- to the point of spying on each other, she recalled.

The project helped build camaraderie, she recalled.

Like any family, Turner must have its black sheep. One might be alumnus Greg Skokut.

“First of all, it's Cow Pie High,” said Skokut, who has one son at the high school and another at the attached middle school.

Skokut couldn't wait to leave the school when he graduated in 1973, but after years in Illinois and Michigan, he returned to take care of his father, and he put down roots.

Sunday, Skokut was at the Turner family's pancake breakfast, along with his own family.

“As much as I wanted to escape this town, it's really not that bad, compared with places I could be,” he said.

Fast forward three decades to Drewshika Thornton, Class of 2010. She said her favorite memory is marching in the Disney World parade in Florida with the rest of the Turner band.

“We were good,” Thornton said, her eyes shining at the thought.

Principal Ryan Bertelsen, a 1998 Turner graduate, said he remembers all the ways he was able to be involved in the small school, but he said the community's support was something he didn't see at the time.

“Events like today, when so many people come out and support you—you don't realize it until later,” said Bertelsen as he flipped pancakes in the high school kitchen.

There's support, and then there's going into debt for a couple of decades. A referendum vote to build a new high school last spring failed.

The school board is likely to bring the question back to the voters at some point, although no plans are pending, said John Turner, a current school board member.

John is Connie's husband and a longtime Turner teacher and coach. He is not, however, related to the school's namesake.

Frederick Jackson Turner was a Portage-born historian who became famous about 100 years ago for his theory that the country's westward expansion helped immigrants shed their European past.

John Turner and several others at the breakfast weren't sure why F.J. Turner was chosen for the school's name. Neither is the history of the school's origin clear.

A history on the school district's website recalls that Wisconsin law compelled all schools to become associated with a high school in the 1960s.

School leaders from towns surrounding Beloit asked to join with Beloit Memorial High School, the story goes, and the city fathers said yes, but only if all the town services were folded into the city.

Turner's founders decided to build their own high school instead.

That's not how Connie Turner remembers it. She noted the city was building a power-generating plant at the time, “and the city wanted the tax money for the power plant, but they didn't want the kids.”

Which goes to show that differences of opinion—like communities—can last a long time.

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