Mary Joan Hassett Turner, leader in cultural scene - The Buffalo News

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Mary Joan Hassett Turner, leader in cultural scene

June 15, 1934 – Sept. 2, 2013

Mary Joan Hassett Turner, the wife of longtime Buffalo News Washington Bureau Chief Douglas L. Turner and an important figure in the Buffalo cultural scene of the 1960s and 1970s, died of cardiac arrest Monday in Fairfax, Va. She was 79.

Known to friends and family as Mimi, Mrs. Turner played a leading role in arts organizations and the local theater scene as her husband worked his way up to become editor of the Buffalo Courier-Express.

She graduated from Holy Angels Academy and later attended D’Youville College. She graduated from Rosary Hill College – now Daemen College – with a Bachelor of Arts in art education.

Involved in theater as far back as high school, she starred in several plays at Canisius College’s Little Theater in her college days.

“Mary Joan had great joie de vivre,” said former Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, who played the role of her husband in “Antigone” and the role of her boyfriend in “Lilliom,” another Canisius production. “She was filled with life. And she was a great actress. She instinctively knew how to appreciate the role and live the role.”

She also starred as Yelena in the University at Buffalo’s production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” as Maisie Maddigan in Sean O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock” and as Abbie in Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms.”

In addition, Mrs. Turner taught drama and produced and directed plays at St. Mary’s Academy, Nardin Academy and at D’Youville, topping off her work there with a production of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.”

To benefit the International Institute of Buffalo, Mrs. Turner for several years staged productions of plays by the French playwright Moliere – recruiting local community and business leaders to play the roles, and the late financier Irving Levick to play the violin in a small orchestra.

Mrs. Turner’s brother, Peter Hassett, recalled that while he was in a bar near Studio Arena Theatre at the time, he overheard the theater’s artistic director, Neal du Brock, say: “I’d like to do Moliere, but Mimi Turner’s got that locked up.”

As a member of the Junior Board of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, she co-produced and wrote a performance at the Studio Arena of readings honoring women achievers and helped produce an exhibit at the gallery for the blind she called “The Matter at Hand.”

On the civic front, she was a strong defender of city parks and a power behind the scenes in helping to create the Theater District in the 1970s, particularly in helping to form a civic group that saved Shea’s Performing Arts Center from bankruptcy and prevented the stripping of its artifacts.

After moving to Washington in 1981 when her husband joined the Courier-Express Washington bureau, she became a director at the Mount Vernon Children’s Theater, directing performances of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” and Shakespeare’s “Richard III.”

Through it all, she was a colorful and vivacious presence. LaFalce recalled that 30 or 40 years after he acted with Mrs. Turner, she would bump into him and instantly start reciting lines from the plays they did together. And on visits to The Buffalo News Washington bureau and elsewhere, she would impulsively make intensely creative drawings to hand out to those she met.

“She dropped drawings around like the leaflets of an evangelist,” her brother Peter recalled. “And they were always whimsical and always well done.”

Married for 51 years, Mrs. Turner is survived by her husband, now the Washington columnist of The Buffalo News, who lives in Springfield, Va.; two sons, Christopher H. and the Rev. Albert W. II; and a daughter, Mary Julia.

A funeral Mass will be offered at 11:30 a.m. Saturday in St. Mark Catholic Church, 401 Woodward Ave.

– Jerry Zremski

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