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Following the call of the conch

Following the call of the conch

Jack Turner, the publishing entrepreneur who started Soundings, was a larger-than-life character.

An English graduate of Colgate University and a Marine Corps veteran, Turner was colorful, smart and creative — the quintessential renaissance man. Publisher, fiction writer, sailor, boatbuilder, woodworker, gardener, home chef and artist. At one time or another, he pursued all these interests with skill and passion.

John P. Turner of Old Lyme, Conn., died April 12 after a brief illness. He was 73.

Turner loved words and language and ideas, the latter of which he seemed to have in never-ending supply. What made him unique, however, was his ability to coax, cajole or simply wrench those ideas into reality. Take the start of Soundings as an example.

Turner knew very little about specialty marine publishing back in the early 1960s, but he wasn’t about to let a little thing like that get in the way of one of his brainstorms. So one night Turner and two friends, Bill Morgan and Scott Hyfield, sat around a kitchen table with a bottle of gin and cooked up the idea for a Long Island Sound boating tabloid they would call Soundings. The first eight-page issue, with ads for 150 used boats, appeared in April 1963 and was delivered free to 50 boatyards, chandleries and dealers in Connecticut.

From that wobbly, uncertain beginning, Turner would go on to build a successful company that published three unique products: Soundings, Soundings Trade Only and Woodshop News.

Turner was publisher and a substantial stockholder in Soundings for its first 34 years. He retired in 1997, when he and co-owner Don McGraw of the McGraw publishing family sold the business to current owner Trader Publishing Co. of Norfolk, Va., the country’s largest publisher of classified and photo advertising magazines.

Even after his retirement Turner’s imprint can be seen on the publications he created. He insisted on fair, accurate and objective reporting — the cornerstones of good journalism — and enjoyed tackling subjects that other boating magazines shied away from.

“From the outset it had been my goal to produce a real newspaper, one that treated boating and the marine world as news, rather than the glossy feature material from which the national magazines were constructed,” Turner once wrote.

Turner came into the publishing business through newspapers, and he retained a fondness for them all his life. He was working as editor of a small Connecticut weekly newspaper in the early 1960s when he and his two friends bootstrapped Soundings into existence.

A large, physically imposing man with a sharp, quick wit, Turner possessed a restless creative energy. Once he completed a project, he was ready to move on to the next one. He particularly enjoyed creating new publications, usually writing and laying out the prototypes himself.

Turner often was way out ahead of his time. He built a 33-foot Bob Harris-designed trimaran named Foxy with his son in the mid-1970s and delighted in proving his doubters wrong. Also during the early years, Turner and his cohorts published a daily newspaper covering Block Island (R.I.) Race Week. Ah, the stories we used to hear from that scene.

And before most people had even heard of the Internet, Turner had created the marine industry’s first Internet service for used boats. He was essentially waiting for the technology to catch up with his ideas.

Turner was, as one of his friends described him, a lovable curmudgeon. He didn’t like stuffed shirts or bureaucrats. And he didn’t suffer fools gladly. I can probably count on one hand the times I saw him wearing a tie. He would come to work all winter wearing boat shoes … and no socks.

Turner enjoyed a good time. For special events (read: office parties), he would blow into a large conch shell, producing an other-worldly sound that few could duplicate. Neptune was summoning his legions. We’d pile out of our cubicles and scuttle into the galley.

Somewhere far off, I can hear the echo of that conch. A hard deadline has just passed. Jack is grinning. His eyes are bright and full of mischief, and the fun is about to begin. We will miss him.

Turner is survived by his wife of 48 years, Mary; a daughter, Mariette T. Brown; a son, John P. Turner III; and three grandchildren, Marilee, Brittany and John P. Turner IV.