This is the remarkable story of Webb alumnus Michael Turner '81, whose life these days is far removed – both figuratively and literally – from his childhood. It’s a life filled with the joys of marriage, fatherhood and a successful career in Las Vegas.
Despite his success, though, he has never forgotten how he attained all this: through hard work, determination, and the early generous support of two scholarships at Webb School of California.
“Webb literally changed my life,” says Turner, who graduated from Webb in 1981. His personal benefactor, the Lluella Morey Murphey Foundation, covered most of his tuition with the remaining portion assumed by the A Better Chance (ABC) program.
“The decision they made, without any doubt, absolutely changed the course of my life,” he exudes about the foundation. He was its first scholarship recipient at Webb. “I don’t know exactly what it was they saw in me, but I want them to know what a huge impact that scholarship had on my future.”
Turner’s story is especially inspiring in that he easily could have slipped through the cracks or gone the way of many of those in his south-central Los Angeles neighborhood.
“I was a ’tweener,” Turner says. “I was good-looking and athletic. I was also the smart nerdy kid! I spent much of my social time with the ‘cool’ kids and my alone time cramming for tests. It was like walking a tight rope between social acceptance and success. It seemed like a zero sum game. It wasn’t popular to be smart.”
He says his intellectual curiosity was not challenged by the educational system in Los Angeles and he “got into as much trouble as I could.”
Still, two of his teachers, Mrs. Mundell and Mrs. Teager, believed in him and suggested he test for the ABC program, which helps fund and place students in advanced academic settings. He did so before his ninth grade year and scored “off the charts.” Soon, several renowned private schools came calling.
Turner headed east, to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and toured the elite boarding school. Despite its prestigious reputation and excellent academics, he felt the school was not a good fit for him.
He returned to California and enrolled at Dorsey High School for his tenth-grade year. But, fate stepped in, in the form of those junior high teachers who had seen so much promise. They passed the word to the Dorsey High principal.
“And he told me, ‘I’m watching you, to guide you and make sure you succeed.’ ”
The principal let Turner know the extent of his resolve only a week into the school year. Turner and a group of friends had ditched school to hang at a local burger shop. Most of Michael’s “cool” was rubbed away when the principal ordered him back to campus. His so-called “friends” laughed as he turned towards campus with his tail between his legs.
“It’s not cool to be grabbed by your ear and lead back to school while all your friends laugh,” Turner says.
“They simply would not allow me to find trouble,” he adds, “so I simply went along with the program and made the best of things.”
At the end of that year he again took the Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT). Once again, he posted a superior score – within the top 5 percent of high schoolers – and was contacted by Webb.
Never intending to leave Dorsey, he toured Webb’s campus as a courtesy and spent the night. To his surprise, however, from the moment he set foot on the grounds he started to think differently.
“I felt, literally, like I had come home. Everyone was so welcoming. There was no distinction between jocks and nerds. I thought, ‘I have a chance here to really learn – to change my life.’ ”
And learn he did – how to study, how to be effective, how to make up his own mind. “Webb was building leaders,” he says. “They were building men.”
He played football, basketball and ran track. He traveled with classmates and saw other parts of the world. He became a mentor to other black students at Webb, and he learned to make himself transparent to others in regard to race.
“I associated with and mingled with everyone, I was one of them,” he recalls. “It leveled out the playing field. I learned how not to let my color be a hindrance to my promotability. Webb helped me to blend in. I still know exactly who I am. I’m not trying to be someone I’m not. I’m just so much better prepared to help others see beyond my color and to see my actual abilities.”
The reception back in his old neighborhood was overwhelmingly positive. “Ninety percent felt like I was a hero,” he recalls. “For me, there was a sense of urgency not to fail.”
At Webb, Turner was voted in as an Honor Committeeman by 75 percent of the students and 100 percent of the faculty. Craig Weber, headmaster at the time, wrote of him: “We consider Mike one of our outstanding student leaders … We feel that he will emerge as one of the productive leaders of society.”
Adds Turner, “Webb School helped set us up … it propelled us beyond what was expected of us.”
The education from Webb started Turner on the path to a life he’d never even dreamed of as a boy. After high school graduation, he earned admission to UCLA, and went on to earn degrees in political science and economics.
Turner graduated from UCLA in 1986 and went on to a successful career in the insurance business. He has worked for multi-national corporations in both Los Angeles and Las Vegas and was also a principal in one of the first national minority-owned insurance brokerages. He now manages a small book of construction clients and is very successful in Las Vegas. He and his wife, Theresa, whom he met at UCLA, have been married for 20 years. They have two sons, Tyler, 17, and Jordan, 15.
Through it all, he has maintained his ties to Webb, serving in the past on the Alumni Board of Directors, offering financial support and staying in contact with a few of his old classmates. He says he has a “sincere disposition to pay things forward. We all owe our success to those before and around us.”
“I think about Webb with the fondest of memories,” he adds. “It was a flashpoint for me. It gave me the tools to succeed. I grew there. At Webb, they always said integrity is key. For me, it only starts there.”
Looking back, despite all his accomplishments, he has one regret from his days at Webb. It relates to those who decide on the scholarships for the Lluella Morey Murphey Foundation.
“I never got a chance to look them in the eyes and say ‘You were a game changer for me. You stopped a bullet train, heading at full momentum towards an unknown, and put me on a new track. You changed the course of my life and I am forever grateful.’
“They insisted that I succeed. I wouldn’t be sitting here today had it not been for Webb.”