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Book excerpt: 'Call Me Ted'

Businessman and author Ted Turner looks back on an advice that shaped his life in a new book, "Call Me Ted."
Grand Central Publishing

Below is a book excerpt from Ted Turner's "Call Me Ted." Turner will be a guest on Meet the Press Sunday, November 30.

Chapter one: Early years

My first word was "pretty." At least that’s what my parents told me. As the story goes, I was looking at a butterfly and out popped, "pretty!" Other parents might have wished for "Mommy" or "Daddy," but by all accounts, mine were thrilled to hear my first word express an appreciation for nature.  My parents would probably never have met and I would never have been born had it not been for the tragic death of my mother’s first fiancé—from complications of a burst appendix—the very day before their proposed wedding. Throughout her grieving, my mom remained very close to her fiancé’s family and for the next several years did little if any dating.

It was toward the end of my mother’s grieving period that Ed Turner (my father) made his way from his home in Mississippi to Cincinnati, Ohio. He was by all accounts a very enterprising young man and moved north after accepting a promising position in the sales department of a local Chevrolet dealer. In addition to responding to the appeal of a job in the automobile business, it’s also likely that my father was eager to leave his home state. His parents had lost nearly everything after the stock market crash. They were living in near-poverty conditions as Mississippi sharecroppers, and opportunities in their area were slim. In high school my father had won acceptance to Duke University but hard times prevented his parents from being able to send him. He wound up going to Millsaps College, a less expensive Methodist school in Jackson, Mississippi. 

But even at the less pricey school, paying tuition was a hardship for my grandparents, and with a job opportunity up north he left school early, before ever earning his degree.  When my father reached Ohio the arrival of this gregarious and charming southerner did not go unnoticed. One Cincinnatian who took an instant liking to my dad was young George Rooney, my mom’s brother. Hopeful that his sister might emerge from her grieving and find a new beau, George insisted that the two should meet.  My mother, Florence Rooney, was a bright, beautiful, and elegant woman with a terrific personality. She stood about five foot eight, and my father, who was six feet tall, always liked tall women. My dad was smitten from the moment they met and he courted her aggressively.

His extra effort was justified, as their differences were significant. In addition to being a southerner, my father was raised Protestant, and for the Rooneys, who were Catholic, marrying outside the church was no small matter. I’ve been told that it was only after he agreed to raise his children in the Catholic faith that my mom accepted his proposal for marriage. They were wed in a Catholic ceremony in the Rooneys’ home on August 14, 1937.  I came along on November 19, 1938, the first Turner born north of the Mason-Dixon line, and as the first grandchild on either side of the family I was showered with lots of love from my parents and extended family. Some of my earliest memories are of holding the screen door open for my great-grandmother on my mom’s side. She lived until she was ninety-one and used to call me "a little dickens." We would visit my father’s Mississippi relatives on occasion but living my early years in Cincinnati exposed me more to my mother’s side of the family. My grandfather George Rooney lived with two of his unmarried sisters—back then they were referred to as "old maids"—and I got along great with all three of them.

But despite being surrounded by loving family, my parents’ marriage had its challenges from the very start and their differences over their parenting especially added to the tension. Regardless of his courtship assurances, after I was born my father let my mother know that he would not allow his children to be brought up Catholic. This was no small issue for my mom and the Rooneys. I’ll never know exactly how those conversations went, but although I did attend a Catholic church occasionally, I was not raised Catholic.  My mother never spoke of the issue in front of me but I’m sure she wasn’t happy about it.

My earliest memories of our Cincinnati home are mostly pleasant.  I was an energetic child and spent much of my time in the backyard and at the creek that ran through a little vacant lot down the street. I’d turn over rocks to find little bugs and crayfish and take them home to put in a jar. I was the center of my parents’ attention for nearly three years, before the birth of my sister, Mary Jean. A beautiful baby, Mary Jean came along in September of 1941 and was the apple of my parents’ eye. That date was significant because when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor just a few months later, my father joined the Navy. When it came time to head out for basic training, my parents also decided that military barracks and Quonset huts were no place for a little boy. They took their infant daughter, Mary Jean, but left me behind to attend a Cincinnati boarding school. I was four years old.

I don’t recall the name of that school but I sure do remember that I didn’t like it. I went from living with my family in a nice home with a grass yard and a creek hollow down the street to a cold, concrete dorm room and a gray gravel courtyard framed by a chain-link fence. The place felt like a prison, and as a four-year-old, it was hard for me to understand why my parents took my sister and left me behind.

The school allowed me to spend Sunday afternoons with my grandparents but the other six and a half days and nights were extremely lonely. I don’t recall feelings of anger toward my parents for leaving me behind, but I do know that I was unhappy a lot of the time. There was one woman there who served as a floor proctor and I have vague memories of her helping me fall asleep at night when I was feeling especially sad and lonely.

The age of four is a very impressionable time and psychiatrists I’ve seen later in my life have attributed a number of insecurities I’ve had ever since to being left alone at such a young age. For example, to this day, I have a significant problem being by myself. I don’t like to be isolated from other people and I also don’t like to feel fenced in. Looking back, that boarding school even had an impact on my eating habits; they served us oatmeal every morning and sixty-five years later I still don’t like it!  My unhappiness must have been obvious, as my parents decided from afar that I should spend the following school year with my Turner grandparents in rural Mississippi. They lived in a small town of about two hundred named Sumner (which later gained infamy as the site of the murder of Emmett Till, the tragic event that helped trigger the civil rights movement). Moving to Sumner meant more transition for me and while it was hard to leave Ohio, I was thrilled to get out of that awful school and was happy to be back with loving family members on a full-time basis.

My time in Mississippi provided constant exposure to nature.  Living with my grandparents on the edge of town I observed all kinds of animals and birds and insects and they fascinated me. I spent hours fishing off a nearby bridge with a piece of bacon hanging at the end of a string and had fun catching turtles. While I was still isolated from my immediate family and I had plenty of lonely moments, I enjoyed spending so much time in nature and my memories of this time are mostly positive.

My father returned from the war the following year and our family was finally reunited in Cincinnati. After sending me to public kindergarten in Sumner, for first grade my parents enrolled me in a private school named Lotspeich. I was a restless kid and got in trouble a lot. I didn’t do anything really bad, just a lot of little mischievous things like putting pebbles in the other kids’ galoshes. Today’s schools would probably jump to the conclusion that I had Attention Deficit Disorder, but that wasn’t the case. After being isolated and alone for so long I was simply craving attention.  My teachers became exasperated and after just one year they made it clear to my mom and dad that they didn’t want me back for a second.

My parents didn’t have a lot of money back then and while it may have been a financial relief to send me to public school, I’m sure they were disappointed to have to do it. For the next couple of years I attended Avondale, a local public school, and my behavior in this new setting was pretty much the same. I caused plenty of mischief but it was a lot harder to get kicked out of public school than private and I managed to stay there from my second grade year through the first part of my fifth grade.

After all the moves and separation of my earlier years, this was a time of relative stability for me. But that didn’t mean that our home life was always smooth sailing. My dad was a complicated man. He was a perfectionist in every aspect of his life—from his dress and overall appearance to the way he conducted his business and raised his family. He was also a deep thinker. He wanted to do the right thing and he read a lot, including books about parenting.  Putting into practice all the different approaches he learned about meant that his style was often unpredictable.

One constant in his parenting, however, was strict discipline and a firm belief in the value of hard work. I was only eight or nine years old when my father started making me work during summer vacation. I began at about four hours a day, and in those earlier years my chief responsibility was working in our yard. We had a manpowered push mower and if you’ve ever used one you know how tough they can be. Every little stick or acorn you’d hit would jam the thing up. And all these ants and chiggers would get you while

you were down on your hands and knees pulling weeds. I’d be bent over, sweating up a storm, and my friends would come skipping by and say, "Ted, you want to go fishing?" I hated having to tell them I still had three hours more work to do. It was such drudgery that to this day I don’t like to do yard work. I might have been out of school, but summertime for me was not a vacation.  My father was also an alcoholic and a heavy smoker. I don’t know how much of a problem he had with these addictions before the war but I’m sure his experiences in the Pacific had an impact on him. He told me that he loved his time in the Navy, but while he appreciated the opportunity to see places like Australia and the Philippines , he also saw combat. He told me that he once killed a Japanese sailor at close range with a pistol. My father and some other guys were looking for souvenirs on a Japanese ship that was half sunk in shallow water in Manila Bay. Out of nowhere, a starving, crazed man came running out at them. He was screaming and hollering in Japanese and continued to charge my father so Dad shot him in self-defense.

But regardless of the reasons, my dad was a volatile man with a quick temper. When he drank, his temper got worse, and when I acted up, he’d spank me. This upset my mother and I can remember times when I was getting a spanking and my mother stood outside my door, begging my father to stop. Dad would have me across his knee and say things like "I’m doing this to help you learn to do the right thing and to grow up to be someone we can both be proud of." Oftentimes he’d use a razor strap and he would say that it hurt him more to beat me than it would if I were hitting him.

I had no way of knowing if this was true but one time when I was only about six or seven years old he decided he’d prove it to me. I’ll never forget it. He handed me the razor strap, lay face down on the bed, and told me to spank him. I tried to obey him but I couldn’t. I loved him so much that I dropped the strap and broke down and cried.

Looking back, some of the biggest arguments my parents had concerned his treatment of me, but my dad ran an old-fashioned household and he insisted that pretty much everything had to be his way.

A TED STORY — "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" Lucy Rooney

(Lucy Rooney, Ted’s aunt, was married to Florence’s brother George "Bud" Rooney, who passed away in 1993.  Lucy continues to live in Cincinnati, Ohio.)

During their courtship, Ed was very charming and he pursued Florence with everything he had. But their marriage ran into trouble early. His behavior was almost like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He told Florence they could raise their children Catholic, but after Ted was born he said he’d sooner jump off the roof than do that and he wanted Florence to stop attending church herself. My sister-in-law was elegant and strong but Ed dominated that household. He also seemed to favor his daughter, Mary Jean. He could be brutal to young Teddy and the abuse began early. I recall one occasion when Ted was sick with a cold or flu. He was still just a little boy but when the doctor paid his house call, he found bruises on Teddy’s body. Sometimes, when Ted was sitting in his high chair, Ed would come behind him and flick his ear with his fingers, hard. He said it would "toughen him up." Perhaps it did but it was certainly a difficult environment for a young boy to grow up in.

My father was not an easy man but I knew that he loved me and that he took a strong interest in my education and development. By the time I finished the fourth grade, he and my mother were concerned about the quality of the education I was getting in public school. At this same time—the summer of 1947—my parents were preparing to leave Cincinnati to move to Georgia . By this time, my dad had decided to make his career in the outdoor advertising business and had acquired a small billboard company in Savannah. The opportunity was a good one and I’m sure he was pleased to be moving back south. Had the decision been left to my mother, I imagine she would have tried to find a Catholic school or some other private institution but my father insisted that he made the money, so he made the rules. He was a conservative man in every way.

(At the height of the Cold War he used to tell me that "the commies" were going to defeat the United States and would shoot everyone who had more than $50. For years I never walked around with more than $49 in my wallet!) My dad also placed a high value on his experience in the Navy and he believed that a military-style education would be good for me. When we moved to Savannah in October of 1947 I attended fifth grade at Georgia Military Academy, or GMA, located just south of Atlanta (the school exists today as Woodward Academy).  As a nine-year-old with a November birthday I was one of the youngest kids in my grade and by arriving in October, I was joining my classmates a full month late. These factors alone would have been hard enough, but going to a southern military school as an Ohio transplant was a real recipe for disaster. It was now the late 1940s but I’d swear some of those kids thought they were still fighting the Civil War.

They wanted nothing more than to make a little "Yankee" like me miserable. Some of the boarding students had been there since the first grade and these were some of the toughest kids I had ever seen in my life—it was like Lord of the Flies.  I decided I needed to show them that I was tough, too. I shared a bunk room with three other kids and on my first night there I announced to my roommates that I was going to be "the boss." They seemed to be okay with my plan but what I didn’t consider was that there were four more kids on the other side of the bathroom that we shared. They were considered part of our group, and after sizing them up I figured I could handle them, too. When I let these guys know I would be their boss as well, they took the news a little differently.

After looking at each other for an instant, all of a sudden they jumped me. Three of them held me down while the other one kicked me in the head. I thought they were going to kill me. My other three roommates stood by and watched, and my attempted dominance of the room group came to a swift, painful, and humiliating end.  It was a grim start and it was several months before things got any easier. One time, some kids spread a rumor that I had badmouthed General Robert E. Lee. It wasn’t true but the news was enough to send a group of my classmates after me like a lynch mob.  They chased me yelling, "Kill the Yankee!" I ran like hell until I got to a row of lockers and managed to squeeze inside one and pull the door closed. They came around the corner and guessed I was in one of those lockers but I stayed really quiet while they milled around outside like a swarm of bees. There had to be fifty of them and although I was really scared and short of breath, I stayed still until they gradually lost interest and drifted away. They didn’t chase me much after that but they did make it a common practice to storm into my room and jump on top of me on my bed. Ten kids at a time would pile on and I’d nearly panic because I couldn’t barely breathe.

I stayed as tough as I could, though, and by the end of the first semester I had become one of the guys. Some of the military training rubbed off on me and I suppose there were benefits to the overall experience. But my parents took some pity on me and the following year I was enrolled in Savannah public school where I spent my happiest year so far. It was great for me to be out of that confined military school environment and I enjoyed being able to spend more of my free time outside and in nature.

My dad’s sporting magazines used to run ads for the Northwestern School of Taxidermy’s correspondence course. For 50 cents a month they would send you a different how-to booklet and I was probably the first eleven-year-old who ever signed up. I used to find dead birds and squirrels, or on occasion I’d shoot them with my BB gun. The house we were living in had a garage with a little office room inside. My parents never used it so that’s where I did my taxidermy work. It was a pretty complicated process but I found it fascinating and I learned a lot about nature and biology.  Another bright spot during that time was the arrival of a twenty-one-year-old black man my father hired to take care of his new sailboat. His name was Jimmy Brown and little did I know that for the next fifty years Jimmy would be one of the most important men in my life.

Shortly after buying a fifty-foot schooner (which he renamed Merry Jean, a play on my sister’s name), my dad realized that the boat was going to be a lot of work. He hired Jimmy after several friends recommended him as a capable handyman. Jimmy was raised by his mother and spoke with an accent typical of the kind of rural fishing village he was raised in, on a small island off the coast of Savannah. He learned a lot about fishing and fixing boats before being drafted into the Army and served with a medic division in the final stages of World War II.

As soon as Jimmy arrived, he and I started spending a lot of time together. He was like an older brother but we behaved more like two good friends. Eventually, he became like a second father to me.  With my dad away or at work so much and my mom spending time with my sister, Jimmy and I would hang out—we’d fish, sail, go cast netting for shrimp, or just explore together. A birth defect left him with a slightly withered arm but Jimmy remained physically active and loved being outdoors. He taught me a lot about nature and a lot about life. I loved every minute of the time I spent with him and he became one of my best friends ever. Because of my love for him, and my father’s color blindness, I grew up without a shred of prejudice. All in all it was great to be home, but consistent with the pattern of my childhood, that stability would be short-lived. Another change loomed.