(Dec. 28, 2017) Berlin and the surrounding area lost many familiar faces in 2017, from Julie Suplee and former Mayor Rex Hailey, to former Ocean Pines Directors Bill Zawacki and Dan Stachurski, to unofficial town mascots like Brady in Berlin and Sarge in Snow Hill.
Another loss that reverberated through the community was that of Jesse Turner.
Former owner of the Berlin Shoe Box, Turner passed away on Friday, March 31 following a battle with cancer. He operated the iconic shop in downtown Berlin for several decades.
His influence, however, was more than business owner and cobbler. People in the community fondly referred to him “The Mayor of Germantown.”
Berlin Mayor Gee Williams reacted to the news of Turner’s passing by saying, “Shock is an understatement.”
“I’m just so thankful that the mayor and council and the entire community got a chance to express and show our appreciation to Jesse and to let him know how much he meant to us,” Williams said. “I wish he had had a longer retirement, but he certainly had a wonderful life in all the classic terms.
“He will be long, long remembered,” Williams added.
Family friend Gregory Purnell said he had lost “Masonic Brother,” and the entire community had lost a good friend.
“This community will always remember him as a true servant,” Purnell said. “Jesse was one of those once-in-a-lifetime figures. He strived for excellence, and sitting at his feet taught me much about being of service to our community in particular and mankind in general.
“He will create a gap that will require more than any one man to fill,” Purnell added. “His life was synergistic – he was a man without peer.”
Turner spoke about his life and his legacy during an extensive interview in the Gazette in February, following the public announcement of his retirement.
He was a U.S. Army veteran and the longtime organizer of the Old Fashioned Memorial Day Parade in Berlin as well as a past master of the Masonic Lodge, past president of the Berlin Chamber of Commerce and member of the American Legion Post 231 – not to mention a husband, father and grandfather – and the most successful racer in the history of the Berlin Bathtub Races.
Born in Accomack County, Virginia in 1930, Turner moved to the area when he was five years old. His grandmother, who worked in a tomato cannery, and his step-grandfather, I.B. Henry, raised him.
Henry was a farmer and a landowner who came into Turner’s life a year or two after the family moved to Worcester County. Along with being a father figure, he would become a mentor.
“We were working people [and] he owned half of Germantown,” Turner said. “He was a local preacher at New Bethel Church, and I would sit right in the front row.”
Despite coming from what would have been middle-class roots, Turner set about to make a name for himself independent of his upbringing. After high school, he landed a job in a chicken plant, although he only lasted for about a week.
Walking down Commerce Street in Berlin, Turner noticed a large “help wanted” sign in the window of Joe’s Shoe Store, a sales and repair shop run by Philadelphia native Joe Ciacco. The year was 1949.
“I came uptown where I could kick my boots off and that was it,” Turner said.
Business was steady, as buying new footwear was not a regular practice during the early 1950s. Turner said most people would “hang onto shoes and just keep getting them fixed,” having new heels and soles put on, rather than discarding them.
The clientele at the time was a melting pot of the county – rural and middle-class, black and white, from field hands and factory workers to schoolteachers, all coming to the same place for the same reason.
Work was briefly interrupted when Turner was drafted into the army in 1954. He served for two years, taking basic training in Columbia, South Carolina and then moving between bases in Georgia and Arizona. After his tour of duty ended, he resumed his job in Berlin.
During the 1960s, Joe’s Shoe Store moved to 112 North Main Street.
It became Berlin Shoe Box when Ciacco retired and Norman Bunting took over during the mid-1980s. Turner would buy the business in 1988.
Still, Turner did much more during that span than simply cobble and wait for his turn to own the business. He joined the American Legion upon his return from the army, and was a leading member of the Masons for more than 50 years.
He also sold cars in the 1960s, learning from Wilmore Teagle, and became a landowner and landlord during that time – using whatever money he made to buy small pieces of property, one-by-one. He also started what would become the largest grass-cutting service in the county.
Turner was instrumental in the development of the Germantown School, and he helped resurrect the Memorial Day Parade on Flower Street in Berlin.
Around 1990, Turner became active in the Berlin Chamber of Commerce. He was president of that organization when the late Jim Barrett launched the Bathtub Races – now a tent pole event in the town – and he later became the most-successful entrant.
He remained an integral part of Berlin during the last decade, when the Main Street started earning “best of” honors among small towns, both statewide and nationally.
“Just about everything they had in town, I would participate in,” Turner said. “I just feel good about it, I tell you. The town’s moving and I see it moving more and more in the last five years – it really jumped. You see a lot of improvements and you hope it carries on.”
His overall legacy, as Turner saw it, was as a businessman.
“I enjoyed all of things that I’ve done,” he said. “And I enjoyed making money. The more I made, it just kept coming to me.”
He employed dozens – perhaps hundreds – during his years as a business owner, and gave shelter to many more as a landlord. He served his community on nonprofit boards and as a community organizer, and was an active member of New Bethel United Methodist Church.
His influence was undeniable. On several occasions during the interview, Turner had to stop to inform customers he was no longer taking work orders.
He stopped each time they came in and paused to talk to them, going as far as to tell one woman, with step-by-step instructions, how he would have fixed her tattered leather shoe.
When asked how far away the closest cobbler was, he told the would-be customers to try shops in Salisbury – or Dover.
“What I’m going to miss most is being on Main Street,” Turner said. “Most of the time I’m the first shop that they see when they park their cars. They come in and ask a lot of questions about where is such a thing and what’s the best place to eat. And a lot of times, at City Hall, if they want to know something about [the town’s] history they send them down here to me.”
Berlin resident Purnell, who knew Turner for more than half a century, called him “a Martin Luther King that didn’t speak.”
“This man is an icon,” Purnell said. “He’s known the shore over. How he has helped people and helped the community is a story unto itself. Whatever you want to do in Germantown, even today, the first name that will come up is Jesse Turner.”
Less than a month before he passed away, the Berlin mayor and Council recognized Turner during a public meeting.
Turner sat in the front row with his family, including his wife, Agnes, and two daughters, as Williams called him, “very respected and loved member of Main Street, Berlin.”
“I can’t remember when I didn’t know Jesse, and I think most of us who live in town can say the same,” Williams said. “One thing that’s been consistent, regardless of what the town’s been through … Jesse has always been one of the most-consistent gentlemen we’ve ever had, and we thank you for that.”
Turner received a proclamation from the town. It stated he graduated from high school in 1949 and responded to a help-wanted ad for a “shoe shine boy.”
“He continued to work hard, learning the trade, advancing and becoming an experienced shoe cobbler, where he continued working for the next 68 years,” Williams read.
Turner had his picture taken with the mayor and the framed citation, and with members of his family, before receiving a warm round of applause from audience in the council chamber.
“I’ll still be around,” Turner said, drawing a laugh, before exiting the room.
Another ceremony honoring Turner was held at the Berlin Visitor’s Center a week later, when close to 100 people came to pay their respects.
Among them were old friends, many dressed up for the occasion, along with fellow Main Street business owners and a handful of local politicians who brought proclamations for a man who obviously meant a lot to the town during his 68 years in business.
Turner was also dressed up, sporting a dark green sports coat that could have doubled for business casual on St. Patrick’s Day. He stood in the center of the room between Williams and County Commissioner Bud Church.
Carol Rose, chairwoman of several Berlin committees, flanked Church and represented Del. Mary Beth Carozza and Del. Charles Otto.
A cake with white icing and the Berlin Shoe Box logo sat on a small table in the back of the room. It was inscribed, “Happy retirement Mr. Jesse Turner. We will miss you!”
“This is a very special occasion – the first of its kind in the 150-year town history. But not many people come along in 150 years like Jesse,” Williams said. “We’ve kept him out of trouble for as long as we can, but he’s also done some wonderful things for so many people.”
Williams said Turner spent his entire adult life helping people. Many of those people, Williams said, had nowhere else to turn.
“From my perspective, as the mayor, this town has come on a long, long journey since it’s founding,” Williams said. “And just remember that every journey begins with a first step, and this gentleman next to me, Jesse Turner, has helped people to make those steps day after day, year after year, decade after decade.”
Church presented a letter of recognition to Turner on behalf of the county commissioners. He said he and Turner went back a long way and joked traffic on Main Street would likely drop about 25 percent without the Shoe Box.
“Between my wife and I, my kids and my grandkids, we’ve spent enough money in Jesse’s store that he should’ve retired 10 years ago,” Church said, drawing a big laugh.
“We have spent a lot of time together, all enjoyable, he continued. “ He’s been my hero, he’s been my pal, and I’m glad you’re finally taking a little time off to smell the roses.”
Church said Turner ran an iconic business and was a community leader.
“This is from all the county commissioners and all of the citizens of Worcester County. You’re a hero. You’re an icon,” Church said.
Rose said it was a big deal for her to be there to honor Turner because she has known him since childhood. She presented him a proclamation on behalf of Carozza and the state senate.
Turner spoke last.
“I want to thank everybody for supporting me in my time being here,” he said. “It’s been a pleasure.”