Beloved professor Billie Turner helped UT become a prominent center for botanical research.
Photo: Amalia Diaz
“He was magnanimous to his students with his time, support and pocketbook to ensure their success in what he thought was the best profession in the world.”
— Matt Turner
In 1953, Billie Lee Turner began his career at The University of Texas at Austin with a dream to make significant contributions to the study of plant life. He was eager to elevate UT’s botany program to world-class stature, and his heart was set on further developing UT’s herbarium, a scientific library of dried plant specimens used in research. Throughout Billie’s lifelong career at UT, he supported this passion and ultimately established generous gifts through his estate to ensure it would thrive for future generations.
Billie’s desire to do something meaningful with his life grew out of his humble beginnings. He was born in Yoakum, Texas, on February 22, 1925. During the height of the Great Depression, his family settled in Galveston, where his father struggled to find work and feed his family. Despite obstacles, Billie excelled in school, graduating as his high school’s valedictorian in 1943.
Billie enlisted in the Army and was promoted to officer in the Army Air Force. The G.I. Bill ignited his yearning to learn. His goal was to become a lawyer, until a botany class changed his career trajectory forever. He amassed three degrees in six years — bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology and a doctorate in botany. Once he arrived in Austin to begin his career, he never looked back.
“My father pulled himself up by the bootstraps,” said Matt Turner, Billie’s son. “He never really cared about being rich, but he wanted to be important and give back to the world.”
While at UT, Billie rose in ranks, chairing both the Department of Botany and the Division of Biological Sciences during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, an era in which UT became a prominent center for botanical research. He emerged as one of the nation’s foremost plant taxonomists and propelled biochemical systematics — using chemistry to classify plants — to the forefront of the field. He also authored more than 700 scientific reports and articles and named more than 1,400 plant species and varieties.
After his retirement in 2000, Billie was named professor emeritus of the Department of Integrative Biology, but his academic life continued with daily trips to campus for almost two more decades. In 2020, he died at the age of 95 after years of declining health and contracting COVID-19. His estate of charitable gift annuities and gifts of real estate will support the herbarium named in his honor, the Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center.
Matt was moved by the tributes that poured in from colleagues and students who witnessed his father’s sincere devotion to his work.
“He was a character,” said Matt. “Naturally cheerful, optimistic and gregarious, my father was welcoming to anyone who showed the slightest curiosity in the world, and even to those who did not. He was as interested in people and their quirks as he was in plants. He was magnanimous to his students with his time, support and pocketbook to ensure their success in what he thought was the best profession in the world.”
Matt added with a grin, “But he also did everything his way, mocked the status quo and social mores, and was honest to a fault. His attention to uniqueness, whether in plants or humans, left the world a brighter place.”
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