As a youngster, Turner was instructed to read a book every two days. He was disciplined with a wire coat hanger. He was put to work in the family business digging post holes. One summer Turner worked a 40-hour week; he was paid $50 a week by his father and was charged $25 to live at home. "My father put the screws to me early," Turner says. "If he hadn't, I never would have survived. My father made me a man."
The family's home life was tragic, owing to a bad marriage, which was to end in divorce, and the debilitating condition of Turner's sister, who died of lupus at 17. "She came out of a coma with her brain destroyed," Turner says. "It was a horror show of major proportions. Padded rooms. Screaming at night. It was something out of Dark Shadows."
At 11, Turner had avoided much of this because he was sent off to military school in Chattanooga. Even though he despised it, Turner remained at the MacCallie School for six years, applied himself and graduated in the top 15% of his class as a company commander. (Later, he would send Robert Edward Turner IV to MacCallie.) Honor.
At Brown University, where Turner planned to major in classics, his father wrote him a remarkable letter (Turner had it published in the school newspaper) in which the elder Turner expressed his dim views of his son's course of study. He "almost puked" upon hearing the news, the old man wrote. He described Aristotle and Plato as "old bastards" and closed, "...you are rapidly becoming a jackass, and the sooner you get out of that filthy atmosphere, the better.... You are in the hands of the Philistines, and dammit, I sent you there. I am sorry. Devotedly, Dad." The father demanded something more practical. The son switched majors to economics. Honor.
After his father's suicide in 1962, holding his legacy of a broken-down business $6 million in debt (which the doomed man had attempted to sell off at the final hour), the 24-year-old Turner spurned the advice of a battery of family financial advisers who told him to give up. Instead, he hired a sales force, reworked contracts, kept control of the company, saved it and, above all, saved the family's name. Honor.
Now Turner Communications is an enormous corporate mixed bag consisting of WTCG-TV in Atlanta, WRET-TV in Charlotte, N.C., several billboard companies and satellite cables. It also owns TV rights to nearly 30% of all the old movies seen in the Western world, part shares of a baseball and basketball team, a major piece of a mounted rattlesnake head—and who knows what all else—and it is rolling along, with revenues increasing 300% over the last four years. Duty with honor.
"My father was halfway to the big time," says Turner. "I think he saw me as the only hope for the family to go all the way. He was working too hard, drinking too much, popping pills, sick all the time. The pressure finally got him. Two years before, he said he wouldn't mind if he died. I knew then. He put a bullet through his head with the same gun that he taught me to shoot with. At the end the banks wouldn't even honor the check for his funeral. It took my father all his life to get to Atlanta. I wasn't goin' back. No way. It was a hard, bad road. Listen, bubby. I've been in last place a long time."
In his book keyed to the 1974 America's Cup, The Grand Gesture, Roger Vaughan, a classmate of Ted Turner's at Brown, recalls him as wearing three-piece suits, bow ties, felt hats, Chesterfield coats and the like. "[Turner] was likable, even enjoyable," wrote Vaughan, "despite his basic racist tendencies, his chauvinistic approach to women, his elitist view of society, and his fascist ideology."
John Rowe Workman, a professor of classics at Brown, also recalls Turner fondly, even after losing him to his father. "But we didn't really lose Ted," Workman is quoted by Vaughan. "He was still around. The real humanist will always go out of his way to be different."
At college, Turner did things like shoot a rifle from a window, burn down his fraternity's homecoming display and terrorize the ladies. "Ted was never a serious student by any measure," says William Kennedy, Brown '60, who is now assistant director of university relations. "We caroused together. Ted was also a bigot, as maybe all of us were in a sense at that time. Often he would go out in a group, after a lot of drinking, and sing Nazi songs outside the Jewish fraternity, or he would put signs reading WARNINGS FROM THE KU KLUX KLAN on the doors of the few blacks at Brown. He wasn't vicious. He was just trying to be one of the boys."