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Douglas Turner, longtime Buffalo News Washington Bureau chief, has died at age 86

Jan. 5, 1932 – Nov. 4, 2018

Few people have witnessed Buffalo’s recent history so intimately as Douglas L. Turner, the one-time Olympic rower who became executive editor of the Buffalo Courier-Express and Washington bureau chief for The Buffalo News.

For more than 60 years as a reporter, editor and columnist, Mr. Turner chronicled the most important local and national stories of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Sometimes, he even participated behind the scenes through countless interactions and influence with the top political, business and civic leaders of his day.

Mr. Turner, a Buffalo native who lived in Springfield, Va., died Sunday, Nov. 4, after a long illness. He was 86.

"He died in much the way he lived: his way, his home, his bedroom if not his bed; surrounded by classical music and memories of Mom," his daughter Molly Field said on Facebook.

Colorful, dedicated, brilliant – yet always unpredictable – Mr. Turner directed the Courier-Express through its fierce competition with The News during the late 1970s before the newspaper was sold and he was reassigned to its Washington bureau. During his tenure as editor he directed a Courier-Express known for hard-hitting journalism, often reflecting his “take no prisoners” directive recalled by its veterans.

And in Washington, Mr. Turner emerged as a major figure in the capital’s journalistic circles. He attended the insider briefings and circulated among power brokers – but always with the healthy skepticism of a hard boiled reporter. Even through his last years as author of a Monday column in The News, he influenced people and events not only in Washington but back home in Buffalo, too.

Douglas Turner

“As a journalist, Doug Turner could do it all,” said Margaret M. Sullivan, former editor of The News and current media columnist for the Washington Post. “He was a savvy Washington reporter, an astute commentator, and earlier as editor of the Courier-Express – someone who identified talent and hired brilliantly.”

Sullivan recalled reaching out to Mr. Turner while attending a 2000 American Society of Newspaper Editors conference, where then-President Bill Clinton was slated to speak shortly after his impeachment. Together they framed a question asking Clinton if he would accept a pardon if then-Vice President Al Gore reached the White House.

The question – and Clinton’s angry, podium-pounding response that he would not accept a pardon – made national news.

“It was all very Doug,” Sullivan said.

Erik Brady, the USA Today sportswriter whom Mr. Turner hired at the Courier, noted his penchant for finding future stars like Tom Toles, an illustrator whom he pushed toward editorial cartooning. Toles later won a Pulitzer Prize at The News before joining the Washington Post. Others included Jo-Ann Armao of the Washington Post and Elaine Sciolino, who became Paris bureau chief for the New York Times.

“He was mercurial and confident and whip smart,” Brady recalled. “He was aggressive, and I do think the paper reflected the personality of the editor.”

In Washington, Mr. Turner waged constant battles with the capital figures he covered. But few failed to note their respect – a signature accomplishment for a Washington reporter.

“Integrity and Doug Turner were synonymous,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer. “When he felt anyone, even those with the most powerful of interests were cutting corners, no one stood up stronger or with more force and effect than Doug.

“I have sparred, debated, agreed and disagreed with him for decades,” Schumer added. “But every day I have known him, I have deeply respected him and his fierce commitment to his profession.”

Indeed, Mr. Turner reveled in that commitment. He enthusiastically embraced the new digital world of the newspaper business, studying newspaper websites around the country and weighing in regularly with News Publisher Warren T. Colville on what worked and what didn’t.

“He had a quick, sharp mind, and was a man of many talents with more than eight decades of knowledge,” Colville said. “Combined with his impressive recall abilities, he was an endlessly interesting companion and conversationalist – the type of colleague you only wish you had known much sooner in life.”

All the while he ground out the Washington stories that daily appeared on the front page of the newspaper.

“For decades, Western New Yorkers saw the working of our nation’s capital through Doug’s wise and experienced eye,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo. “A no-nonsense, hard-driving journalist and respected overseer of our nation’s democratic institutions, Doug was a favorite son and strident defender of Buffalo, of the city and the people he loved.”

Former Rep. Henry J. Nowak, D-Buffalo, whom Mr. Turner always said he enjoyed covering as much as any political figure, called him a “colorful, hardworking journalist who always seemed to get to the gist of a story.”

“No matter whether the topic was small or large, he made it clear with a unique flair and an unmistakable point of view,” Nowak said. “While he was dedicated to his profession, he never let it override his broad interest in the great issues of the day.”

Born in Buffalo to Henry A. Turner and the former Effie McIndoo, he was graduated from Lafayette High School in 1952. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Brown University in 1954, where he participated in varsity crew and was a member of the Jabberwocks Singing Group and Beta Theta Pi. In 1968 he studied at Stanford University’s graduate business school on a Ford Foundation fellowship.

He enlisted in the Army from 1955 to 1957, serving as a special agent in the Counter-Intelligence Corps. But he donned another U.S. uniform while discharged from the service as a rower in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. His lifelong devotion to the sport stemmed from an early association with Buffalo’s West Side Rowing Club, as well as a star role on Lafayette teams that claimed championships in major events like the Royal Canadian Henley.

Douglas Turner, top of photo, with the West Side Rowing Club four-man (with coxswain) boat that went to the 1956 Olympics. (John Hickey/H/O File Photo/Buffalo News)

Mr. Turner joined the Courier in 1957, advancing as Albany bureau chief, financial editor, city editor, executive editor and Washington bureau chief. After the Courier closed in 1982, he joined The News and was bureau chief from 1982 to 2007 before working as a columnist in “retirement.”

He was formerly a member of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Associated Press Managing Editors Association, was a governor of the National Press Club and – dearest to him – a member of the Gridiron Club. The capital’s most elite journalism society, it produces an annual spoof show that usually draws the president and top figures, and always featured Mr. Turner and his rich, baritone voice.

A Renaissance man who could quote from the classics as well as comic strips, he was also deeply spiritual. For most of his life he was a deacon, elder and trustee of First Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, but converted to Catholicism at Washington’s Holy Trinity Church in 1988. He not only converted but immersed himself in all that was Catholic, able to quote canon law or theological works ranging from St. Augustine to the papers of Vatican II.

In 1962, he married Mary Joan Hassett, who died in 2013. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by two sons, Christopher and Albert; and 10 grandchildren.

In his last days he often reminisced about his life and long career. Always it came back to the newspaper business he loved – the people he covered or the thrill of a newsroom on election night. In one of those conversations he recalled seeing the Courier presses in action for the first time, “the smell of the solvents and the guys with the paper hats.”

In those days, he recalled, rookie reporters had to wait five or six months before earning a byline. On the day of his first, he waited on the street early in the morning for the Courier trucks to deliver the paper.

“There was never anything else in the world I wanted to be,” he said.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Mark Catholic Church, 401 Woodward Ave.

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