Guthrie Turner, who broke barriers for black Army doctors and led Madigan Army Medical Center during a difficult period after the Vietnam War, died Thursday at the hospital he once commanded. He was 83.
Turner was the first African-American general officer to lead the hospital south of Tacoma, the Army’s largest in the West. In Vietnam, he commanded a medical evacuation battalion that ferried wounded solders from the battlefield to combat hospitals.
More recently, the Steilacoom resident was better known as a board member for the Madigan Foundation and for Franciscan Health System.
Friends and family remembered Turner as an effective commander who cared for patients and for Army families.
His daughter Karen Lee of Covington once looked through her father’s address book and saw an entry for every baby he ever delivered. He liked to stay in touch with people. She remembered him walking the halls at the old Madigan complex, checking on patients, especially ones who were in the hospital by themselves.
“He just lived life a certain way, from being born in 1930 to living in segregated America to seeing many of the people that he helped go on in life,” Lee said.
“He was all grace and class, a man who led by example,” said Lourdes Alvarado-Ramos, director of the state Department of Veterans Affairs and a friend of Turner’s from the Madigan Foundation. “Those around him felt better just because of the way he was.”
Turner arrived in the Northwest in the early 1950s. He had earned a bachelor’s degree from Shaw College in North Carolina and a medical degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C.
In that era, segregation reigned in the South, and the Army was reluctant to send new black doctors there, according to his daughter. Madigan, by contrast, had a good reputation as a fair place for African-Americans to work, she said.
Lee said her father fell for the Northwest as soon as he got his first look at Mount Rainier. She said he knew he wanted to settle here at the end of his military service.
Turner’s career took him to Harvard University for his master’s degree, to war with 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam, to Germany as the top surgeon for VII Corps, and to South Korea as the leader of the medical command for the Eighth Army.
Through those years, Turner conscientiously looked out for soldiers and paid attention to the lives of those around him, according to his daughter. They once delayed a family vacation in Germany so he could pick up a soldier whose car had broken down.
“We kept people in our house all the time,” Lee said.
His last assignment brought him back where he started: to Madigan, where he took command as a one-star general in June 1980.
The Army at the time was going through a downsizing period. He faced hard choices, said his friend, retired Col. Al Buck.
“His leadership played a very significant role in maintaining all the good things about Madigan through very difficult times,” said Buck, the president of the Madigan Foundation. “This was a time of very abrupt personnel cutbacks, which were challenges that frankly would have sunk many a leader, but the organization survived all that and prospered largely because of his leadership.”
Turner’s three-year assignment at Madigan gave him the opportunity to shape the hospital’s redesign. In 1992, the hospital visible today from Interstate 5 opened, replacing the sprawling World War II-era halls that are known around Joint Base Lewis-McChord as “old Madigan.”
In addition to Lee, Turner is survived by his wife, Ellaworth K. Turner; another daughter, Kimberly Green of Lakewood; and son Kevin Turner of Lakewood.
Funeral services are scheduled for 1 p.m. Jan. 25 at Oberlin Congregational Church, 1603 Rainier St., Steilacoom.
253-597-8646 / adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com