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The Turners behind the Turner Center

Bob and Carolyn Turner share their good fortune to tip the dominoes in Peoria’s economic favor

by Mike Bailey |
Family sitting for a portrait on a front porch
The Turner family

Were it not for a certain couple, there might not be a Center for Entrepreneurship at Bradley University.

Were it not for the Turner Center, there might have been 32,000 fewer jobs retained and created in central Illinois over the last two decades, 700 fewer business start-ups, some $4.5 billion less in government contracts, another $84 million less in private equity investment, and fewer opportunities for 4,500 BU students working on nearly 900 community-based programs.  

It’s funny how the dominoes fall in making a community a better place. 

So, who exactly are these Turners behind Bradley’s Turner Center?

Bob and Carolyn Turner are Illinois natives, the parents of four (one a BU grad), the grandparents of seven — soon to be eight. They now reside in Savannah, Georgia, enjoying the life afforded them by very successful careers.

They’re also among the top donors to Bradley University in its 125-year history, having given some $7.5 million. They are partners in every sense of the word, and though Carolyn matriculated at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, their fingerprints are all over the Hilltop, including Bradley’s pioneering Business and Engineering Convergence Center.

The two of them were recognized with the President’s Award in 2010, and Carolyn is an honorary alum. Bob is a former chairman of BU’s Board of Trustees.

The latter’s story began in nearby Yates City, then a community of fewer than 900 people where Bob and his brother “literally must have mowed every yard.” His father, Bob, was a union pipefitter, his mother, Janet, a homemaker when they were young.  

“It was kind of a bubble but a comfortable bubble” for Bob and his two siblings, Mark and Susan. “You were very insulated to the outside world, other than we’d go to Peoria on Sundays and shop or have a meal.”

Carolyn Witruk, meanwhile, was growing up in Chicago’s western suburbs – specifically, Elmhurst – also the eldest of three children, the daughter of a union mechanic. At the U of I, she’d learn the skills necessary to teach the deaf in Chicago’s Public Schools.

Headshot of a young man
Robert Turner

For Bob, a first-generation college student, “Bradley was the opening to a much broader perspective.” When he graduated in 1977, however, “I’d just turned 21 and the only thing I’d learned from an accounting degree was that I didn’t want to be an accountant.” He had an offer in the tax department at Commonwealth Edison, but “if there’s a hell on Earth, it’s the tax department.”

Salvation came in the form of an opening in Bradley’s MBA program. “(BU Professor) John Wholihan threw me the lifeline that in my mind changed the trajectory of my career,” Bob said. “That’s why I’ve always been indebted to Bradley.”

Wholihan and other Bradley mentors, notably economics professor Kal Goldberg – “To sit in his class was almost like going to stand-up comedy … He was just so sincere and generous with his time” – made all the difference in the world, at a BU known then and now for the strong bonds encouraged between students and staff. 

“I really enjoyed U of I but I always envied Bob for how personal his college experience was,” noted Carolyn.

A bit of serendipity – those dominoes again – brought the Turners together. 

Bob had taken a job with Arthur Andersen — where fellow central Illinoisan and BU grad George Shaheen was a partner and made Turner his first Braves hire – when he was drawn to the reelection effort of then-President Jimmy Carter. He took a leave of absence, and met Carolyn on the campaign trail. Their whirlwind romance resulted in marriage a year later with a combined $324 in their bank account and Carolyn’s 1976 Nova as her dowry, joked Bob.

“Jimmy Carter lost, and we won,” he said. “And 41 years later, we’re still together,” said Carolyn.

Their journey has been an adventure that first took them to North Carolina, then Pennsylvania, as Bob cultivated an interest in investing and they began building a family.

“I always had an interest in investment but as great as Bradley was, there was not a direct line between Bradley and Wall Street,” Bob said. So, he’d learn the craft along the way, first at McMillion/Eubanks and Integon in North Carolina, then at Meridian Bank outside Philadelphia, before deciding in his mid-30s to scratch that entrepreneurial itch he’d always had.

He cashed in a $22,000 IRA, which became the capital for the start-up that would become Turner Investments where his brother would join him. 

“You’re either born a risk-taker, or not,” said Bob. While others were investing in AT&T and its safe 5 percent yield, he was taking a chance on newly formed Cisco.

“I was always the perpetual optimist,” if also “just incredibly naïve,” said Bob. “Ninety percent of early-stage companies fail, not because of a lack of a good idea, but because of a lack of capital or the ability to get the right people involved. There was a lot of good fortune … but you’ve heard the expression, ‘the harder I work, the luckier I become.’ I worked really, really hard.”

Ultimately, Turner became chairman and chief investment officer at the firm bearing his name and managed $30 billion in assets.

By the turn of the century, Turner Investments was highly successful and Turner called his alma mater, specifically BU Vice President and CFO Gary Anna, and later President John Brazil.

“I said, ‘Listen, I’ve always wanted to give back to Bradley. I feel like Bradley really prepared me,’” said Bob.

“They could have asked me to give money to a basketball arena. I would have been perfectly fine with that,” he said. Instead, what he heard was, “We’d really like to start this center for entrepreneurship.

“I give them tons of credit for having the vision that Peoria needed something like this. Here we are, 22 years later,” and the Turner Center has become everything he hoped, said Bob, who is quick to credit Director Jim Foley and others for making it so.

More dominoes.

Carolyn and Bob Turner, on African safari

Today, the Turners are enjoying the perks of semi-retirement, traveling between their children’s homes and elsewhere while Bob stays busy as an ordained minister. They’re back in Peoria four times a year to visit family
 – his mother and sister live in Elmwood – while Bob has served on the boards of Luke Haverhals’ Natural Fiber Welding and Seshadri Guha’s Tada. He’s aware of the economic bruises central Illinois has absorbed, but is impressed by what he sees now.

“The great thing about Peoria – and I think it’s the Midwest culture – is that everybody wants everybody else to succeed. On the East Coast, that’s not necessarily the case,” Bob said. “Everybody acknowledges that the next Google probably is not going to come from Peoria, but there are so many opportunities, particularly in ag tech … It’s just encouraging to see what is happening there.”

The Turners played no small role. 

“Bob and Carolyn Turner have been major difference makers in the history of Bradley University and by extension the Peoria area,” said Doug Stewart, a retired Peoria banker who followed Turner as Bradley Board chairman. He described them as “visionaries … always thinking about the future and how Bradley could both sustain herself and gain a competitive edge.” 

Added current trustee and Federal Judge Jim Shadid: “The well-regarded Turner School is a very visible asset … Bradley, and Peoria, are the fortunate, and grateful, recipients of Bob and Carolyn’s commitment … in producing the leaders of tomorrow.”

To all that, the Turners just say, “We’ve really been blessed … The more one gives, the more one receives.”

For Bob, it’s simple: “For Bradley to succeed, Peoria has to succeed. And for Peoria to succeed, Bradley has to succeed, as well.”

Mike Bailey

Mike Bailey

is editor in chief of Peoria Magazine [email protected]