Frank Turner GRD ’71, recently appointed University Librarian, professor of 19th-century European history and former University provost, died of a pulmonary embolism Thursday morning at the age of 66.
University President Richard Levin announced Turner’s passing in a campuswide e-mail later that afternoon. Provost Peter Salovey said in an e-mail to the News Thursday that Turner’s death is a “huge loss” to him and to the University.
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“Frank Turner loved Yale, and he approached every role he ever played at Yale in a way that reflected his feelings for this place,” Salovey said. “We will miss his wisdom, humor and commitment to Yale’s academic mission.”
Turner was named University Librarian in September after serving as interim University librarian since January, when then-University Librarian Alice Prochaska departed. He continued to serve as director of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Turner served as director for seven years, and previously served as provost between 1988 and 1992.
Literature professor Pericles Lewis, who chaired the committee that recommended Turner as University librarian, said he was surprised that Turner was willing to step into the demanding role and sacrifice his scholarship to serve the University. Beinecke curator George Miles ’74 GRD ’77 said Turner continued to teach until last fall and advise senior essay writers.
Still, Turner committed himself to his work with the University Library. Lewis said Turner was skilled at adapting the library’s resources to the needs of student, faculty and outside researchers. Turner doubled the number of classes taught in the Beinecke and pioneered a digitization project to make Beinecke materials available online. Decisions about books and manuscripts, Lewis said, were made by the team rather than from the top down.
Turner was a stern supervisor, Miles said, but he was also understanding. Miles said Turner told the staff about a week ago that this year is a financially difficult time for both Yale and the library. Turner said as long as the staff stuck together and focused on its core mission of education, the library would endure. Miles said Turner’s appreciation for the rhythms of history made him a great leader during challenging times for the University.
“I always admired Frank for the even keel he kept and for his willingness to be about the institution as opposed to about himself,” Miles said. “It was never about Frank. It was about all of us.”
Associate University Librarian Kendall Crilly MUS ’86 GRD ’92 said Turner, who also served as the director of the Beinecke for seven years, was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of the university. Lewis described lunches with Turner at Mory’s as “steeped in Yale lore,” adding that he admired Turner’s wry sense of humor about Yale.
Miles said Turner had a reputation from his time as provost as a tough administrator, but added that he cared more about people than anything else. Turner treated all of the Beinecke staff with respect regardless of their experience or credentials, Miles said.
Crilly said Turner forged many strong, collegial relationships with University employees during his 40 years of service. Crilly recalled Turner’s constant desire to reach out to more members of the community, adding that he remembered Turner often saying that “the library can never have too many friends.”
He was “institutionally minded” and a faculty member who was often asked to serve on or chair committees, Deputy Provost Lloyd Suttle said in an e-mail Thursday. Suttle, who worked with Turner since the 1980s and served as associate provost while Turner held the provost post from 1988-’92, said his colleague will be difficult to replace.
“He loved Yale, and he loved the Library, and he had a wonderful vision for how the Library should support faculty, students and scholars — not just at Yale, but around the world,” Suttle said.
Turner received his bachelor of arts degree with highest honors from the College of William and Mary in 1966 and his Ph.D. in 1971 from Yale. His dissertation on reactions to scientific naturalism in Victorian England won the John Addison Porter Prize. Turner began teaching at Yale full-time in 1971, and received the Yale College Award for Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching for his work teaching European history. Turner was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1983 and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and is the author of four academic books and more than 25 scholarly articles.
Turner is survived by his wife, Ellen Louise Tillotson, who is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Torrington, Conn.
Alison Griswold contributed reporting.