Polly Turner, 98, of Lexington, died peacefully in her sleep on Thursday, August 22, 2019 in Norfolk, where she had moved several years earlier to be near family.
Born in Buchanan on September 9, 1920 – the same year women won the right to vote, as she often pointed out – to Minnie Pauline Booze and David Henry Swartz, Polly was a trailblazer from the start. After graduating from Buchanan High School in 1938, she was the first woman to successfully lobby her hometown Bank of Buchanan to offer her a student loan that she used to obtain a nursing degree from Roanoke Hospital School of Nursing. Upon graduation in 1941 she accepted a position as a Registered Nurse (RN) with the Waynesboro Community Hospital. Blending compassionate patient care with a no-nonsense management style, Polly was quickly recognized as a leader among her peers and was named head of the surgical nursing staff at the hospital. In what free time her career allowed, she took up an unusual hobby for women at that time: flying airplanes. Eventually, she logged enough hours in the air to fly solo. She met Second Lieutenant Edward Felix Turner Jr. of Waynesboro on New Year’s Eve 1942. Married on September 23, 1945, following his return from World War II, they remained deeply devoted to one another throughout their life together. The couple moved to Lexington in 1946 when he entered Washington and Lee University (W&L) for undergraduate work. They moved to Boston, and then to Charlottesville for his graduate studies in physics at M.I.T. and UVA, followed by a move to Falls Church where Dr. Turner joined the faculty at George Washington University. After three years, they returned to Lexington where Dr. Turner taught physics at W&L for nearly 30 years and where they were members of Manly Memorial Baptist Church.
After her husband’s death in 1978, Polly continued to live in Lexington where they had raised their three daughters, Andrea Lee, Elaine Felice, and Paula Virginia. She remained famously feisty, stubbornly independent, sharp as a tack, and not to be underestimated. She loved life and learning, reading extensively across a wide array of interests including the history of women’s rights, Native and African Americans, astronomy, environmental and wildlife sciences, and politics. Polly was a lifelong Democrat who felt strongly about advancing the civil rights of women and minorities. Her passion on these subjects led to political activism, regularly volunteering at voter registration drives and giving her time generously to numerous campaigns and causes. She chaired the Democratic Committee of Rockbridge County in the 1970s, during which time she worked tirelessly trying to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified by Virginia. At age 96, she proudly cast her vote for the first woman nominated by a major political party for U. S. President. Polly loved and supported the performing arts, particularly classical music and opera. She cultivated a childhood interest in birds into a lifelong passion for birding and environmental activism. Through her membership in the Rockbridge Bird Club and service on the board of Virginia Society of Ornithology in the 1980s and early 1990s, she participated in many citizen science endeavors such as annual hawk migration and Christmas bird counts. She loved every minute of time spent outdoors birding, whether with friends or alone. She was a woman who knew how to enjoy her own company. Polly requested that her obituary clearly communicate that among her greatest joys were the raising of her three girls and her lifelong hobby of birdwatching.
In the 1970s, before genealogy had become a household pastime, Polly helped her own mother research and document the Booze (maternal) and Swartz (paternal) family history in Rockbridge and Botetourt counties. Their work was published in Harry Fulwiler’s book, “Buchanan, Virginia, Gateway to the Southwest.” With the help of her youngest daughter and the new resource of digitized records, Polly continued this research into the 1990s and authored several submissions which were published in the “Botetourt County, Virginia, Heritage Book 1770-2000.” The four submissions published included a memorial to her brother, Andrew Lee Swartz (p. 227), a memorial to her beloved African-American childhood housekeeper, Cojie Reid (p. 196), history of the David Henry Swartz family (p. 227), and history of the Billy Booze and the Harry Booze families (p. 83). The account of how her maternal great-grandfather, Billy Booze, helped save the Bank of Buchanan (now Bank of Botetourt) during General Hunter’s march through the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War was included in the bank’s history book Becoming Bank of Botetourt: Centennial Celebration of a Community Bank 1899- 1999. Research into the life of her paternal great-grandmother, Charlotte Malone Bowyer, was included in “Lexington, Virginia: History Lessons from a Country Church, Volume 1,” by Horace Douty.
Polly was a prolific letter writer. She worked to ignite the spark of passion in others for all her many interests by mailing relevant newspaper articles and gifting books to family and friends, by taking them to cultural events and concerts, and by organizing trips, whether to historical sites or to the woods, a pair of binoculars in tow. Her daughters were all given music lessons, and six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren play at least one musical instrument. Many of her descendants, including several great-grandchildren, have discovered a love of the natural world and a passion for environmental conservation through bird watching. Her love of reading is shared widely in the family. Beyond any particular interest, her greatest gift was to encourage others to follow their own curiosity, to engage with the world, and to be intentional about cultivating one’s life. She led by example, and though she will be greatly missed, this treasured legacy is one that will be passed down the generations.
Mrs. Turner was preceded in death by her husband, Dr. Edward F. Turner Jr.; her parents, Mr. and Mrs. David H. Swartz; and two brothers, David H. Swartz Jr. of Christiansburg, and Andrew Swartz of Buchanan, killed in action in Europe in WWII.
Surviving are her sister, Virginia Shaver, of Roanoke; and three daughters and their families including seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren: Andrea and Jesse L. Clark of Warsaw, Va., and their two daughters, Rachael Garbee with John Mattern (children William, age 10, and Thomas, 8) of Kingston, N.H., and Eleanor Clark of Woodbridge, Va.; Elaine and Carlton A. Sears III, of Kent, Ohio, and their two daughters, Meredith Sears Priset with husband, Jared Priset (children Margaret, age10, Elias, 8, and Adelaide, 5) of North Canton, Ohio, and Megan Sears LaMarca with husband, Anthony LaMarca, of Boardman, Ohio; and Paula and Stephen A. Markham of Norfolk and their daughter, Julie Markham with husband, Brent Orr (children Aiden, age 12, and Miles, 8) of Memphis, Tenn., and two sons, Andrew Markham (children Dean, age 10, and Reid, 5) of Norfolk, and Patrick Markham of Norfolk.
A graveside service for the interment of the cremains will be held at some future date at the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery in Lexington, and is being handled by Altmeyer Funeral Homes and Crematory (altmeyer.com). In lieu of flowers, Mrs. Turner would wish that a memorial be made to a charitable organization of choice. Her daughters mention as possibilities the Rockbridge Bird Club or the Edward F. Turner Jr. Memorial Scholarship for physics that their mother set up through the Community Foundation for Rockbridge, Bath and Alleghany.