Remembering Walker ‘Sonny’ Turner, longtime volunteer and photographer

04/11/2014 5:00 PM |

Sonny Turner and his wife of 61 years, Hattie

Walker “Sonny” Turner, longtime ambulance volunteer, photographer, retired postman and chaplain — among numerous other roles — died April 3 at the age of 83 following a long illness.

“Sonny wore a number of different hats,” his family said in his obituary.

And now, the many people he touched are offering their condolences, said his wife of 61 years, Hattie. 

“I am receiving phone calls, cards and everything,” Ms. Turner said. “So much love has poured out to us as a family because of him, his attitude and his personality.”

She said they met at Riverhead High School, where Mr. Turner graduated in 1950 and Ms. Turner did the following year. They were married on June 8, 1952.

Born on Nov. 4, 1930, Mr. Turner worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 30 years before retiring and later worked at Suffolk County National Bank for 14 years.

After retiring from the bank, he devoted his time to photography and was widely known for the photos he took for the Riverhead Fire Department as well at the Jamesport, Flanders, Wading River and Eastport fire departments, either at the scene of a fire or at department dinners, Ms. Turner said.

Mr. Turner was also a staff photographer for Fire News.

In addition to his photography, Mr. Turner was a 30-year volunteer with the Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps and was the recipient of the Corps Lifetime Achievement Award. He also served as chaplain for the RVA.

And there’s more.

Mr. Turner also served as a religious counselor to inmates at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverside for about 20 years, Ms. Turner said.

“The inmates really respected him,” she said.

“I never knew anyone to have a bad word about Sonny, and I’ve never known Sonny to have a bad word about anybody else,” said Keith Lewin, a longtime RVA member. “He was just a great personality. He was quiet and always considerate of people.”

Several years ago, Mr. Turner was the recipient of the RVA’s first Lifetime Achievement Award — an award that’s only been given one other time.

“Basically, the lifetime achievement award is not a yearly thing. It’s given to someone who has been in the department a long period of time and has remained active in responding to calls,” said Bruce Talmage, the president of the ambulance corps’ board of directors.

“It’s just intended to go to someone who has gone above and beyond what most members have done over the course of many years and the commitment they’ve made over that time period,” he said. “He was a really valuable member of the organization for many years, and just had his 30th anniversary last year. He was a driver and he was very good at that because he knew his way around town from being a mail carrier.”

Particularly valuable was Mr. Turner’s knowledge of Glenwood Village, which can be difficult for those unfamiliar with it to navigate.

“Whenever we got a call in Glenwood, Sonny not only knew all the streets, but when we got there, he knew all the people too,” Mr. Lewin said.

Mr. Turner’s photographs weren’t limited to fire and ambulance pictures. He also did family photos, portraits and abstract photography, Mr. Lewin said.

Ms. Turner said her husband had been diagnosed with lung cancer several years ago. After undergoing chemotherapy, it appeared to be in remission around 2011, but other ailments then started to afflict him, like diabetes, asthma and COPD, Ms. Turner said.

“The odd thing is, Walker never smoked,” Ms. Turner said.

Mr. Turner continued to answer calls for the RVA up until a few years ago, when his illnesses prevented him from doing so, Mr. Lewin said.

And since he was always taking pictures of everybody else, Ms. Turner said she’s now discovering that there aren’t many photographs of just her husband.

“He was always on the other side of the camera,” she said.

Mr. Turner was the son of Walker and Martha Turner. He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Hattie (née Mayo); his sons, Michael and Brian; his sisters, Evelyn Shannon of Riverhead and Martha Arch of Southampton; eight grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his brother, Ernest.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by McLaughlin Heppner Funeral Home in Riverhead. Cremation will be private; a memorial service will be held at a later date.

Memorial donations can be made in Mr. Turner’s name to Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps or East End Hospice.

tgannon@timesreview.com