The university that Meb built

Legacy: After almost 33 years, H. Mebane Turner is retiring as chief of University of Baltimore.

June 29, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

In these last few days of H. Mebane Turner's nearly 33-year presidency of the University of Baltimore, nearly everyone had a Meb story.

About how he parlayed an unwanted parcel of railroad land into a parking garage.

About how he rescued the faded Lyric Opera House and restored it physically and financially, defying many doubters.

About how he fell in love, married and became a father at 56, after years of eligible bachelorhood.

About how folks greet him by name on his daily walks through Mount Royal and Midtown-Belvedere, where some people call him the Mayor, others the Octopus for the way he's grabbed up property for the university.

But even critics of the 71-year-old Turner agree on one thing: Midtown Baltimore is a much improved neighborhood since he arrived in 1968 and became UB president a year later.

He retires tomorrow, the senior president among Maryland college and university chiefs - public and private - and, according to the American Council on Education, the longest-tenured public college or university chief in the nation.

To sum up Turner's presidency: He took an undistinguished private university with a law school attached and turned it into a mature state university with full accreditation, three doctoral programs and respected business and law schools.

And wheeling and dealing over three decades, Turner expanded UB's urban campus from three properties on 2.4 acres in 1970 to 40 properties on 14 acres today. Buying, selling and trading buildings and land in three directions from UB's oldest existing building at 1420 N. Charles St. - and adding new buildings - Turner transformed the university and reinvigorated a slumping part of the city, says William Donald Schaefer, former mayor and governor.

"He's a visionary," says Schaefer, who sometimes clashed with Turner but relied on him for advice and kept him on for 10 1/2 stormy years as president of the City Jail Board.

"When Meb moved into this part of town, it was pretty much a disaster," remembers Fred Lazarus IV, the 24-year president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, UB's neighbor to the northwest. "There were rundown auto dealerships, peep shows and bars. All that's changed, and most of the credit goes to Meb."

Yesterday, Turner spent much of his last day at his office attending to final details of a $1 million pledge from alumnus and MBNA executive Vernon H.C. Wright (Class of '69) and his wife, Lucy.

The gift, which landed on Friday, was part of the school's successful capital fund-raising campaign, which has raised $21 million since 1998, including nearly $5 million from MBNA, the giant Delaware credit card issuer.

As he signed papers and finished business, Turner greeted colleagues and employees who stopped to say goodbye.

"I knew this was going to happen," said his personal assistant, Beverly Randall. "I told everyone he's going to work till the last minute."

Emily Greenberg, director of the university's law school library for the past 28 years, visited, saying she had mixed feelings about his leaving, but added, "He's doing the right thing. He's a gentleman of the old school."

Turner was 38 when he arrived at the university, having once worked in Baltimore as a Merrill Lynch stockbroker. He'd grown up in Richmond, Va., the only son of a tobacco company executive, and had "gone from probation to the dean's list" at the University of Virginia "after learning that one way to succeed in college is to attend class."

He earned a divinity degree from New York's Union Theological Seminary and, after two years as an Army chaplain, returned to New York to earn a master's degree at Columbia Teachers College. He was dean of students at what was then George Mason College in Fairfax, Va., when UB President Thomas G. Pullen Jr. asked Turner to return to Baltimore as provost.

One year later, in 1969, he was named president upon Pullen's retirement.

Catherine R. Gira, president of Frostburg State University, who was Turner's acting dean and provost, remembers looking out her office windows at the seedy neighborhood back then. A strip joint stood where the university's new business school is today. Also in sight was a hotel of dubious reputation. Today it houses UB offices and classrooms.

Nearby, in the 1200 block of N. Charles St., stands Turner's latest accomplishment: the Queen Anne Belvedere Apartments. A block south of the campus epicenter, the 76 restored units feature such modern amenities as high-speed computer links, and they're priced within range of UB students.

"It's really our first student housing," says Turner of the Queen Anne redevelopment, which opened a year ago. "You need people in the area around the clock to attract bars and dry cleaners and keep things alive."

Gira credits Turner with "having the ability to see in his mind's eye what the neighborhood will look like years ahead. There aren't many of us who have that ability."

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