Our Town: Jerry Turner talks about 55 eventful years in Belleville

News-DemocratMarch 2, 2014 

Jerry Turner talks about the support the Belleville Township High School Maroons basketball team received during their trip to the State tournament in 1966. Even though the team placed third, a crowd of 10,000 greeted them when they arrived back in Belleville.

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Jerry Turner was a 25-year-old student at the University of Missouri in the summer of 1959, finishing his master's degree with plans to continue on toward a doctorate when he noticed a story in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

It said that Belleville Township High School was seeking a new basketball coach. Turner, from Belgrade, Mo., who had gained a good reputation in St. Louis area coaching circles for turning around the basketball program at Herculaneum High School, was intrigued.

"I went to the cashier and I got a handful of quarters and made a call to the superintendent," said Turner, who is now 80. "I got an interview so I asked a good friend of mine to look over my resume. To my surprise, he said he wouldn't do it. I asked him why not and he said, 'If you apply, you'll get it and you'll never come back.' He was right."

Turner, who planned to coach and teach social studies in Belleville for a couple of years and then move on to the next stop, became a local sports hero by leading the Township High Maroons from 50 years of mediocrity and turning them into a local powerhouse.

He stayed beyond his coaching years to become an assistant principal and then principal of the school that would become Belleville West before retiring in 1992. In the meantime, he and his wife, Margaret fell in love with the city and remain in Belleville 55 years later.

"Belleville is a fairly large small town," Turner said of the reasons he decided Belleville was the place his family would stay. It was a place that offered a quiet, suburban life. But it had all the amenities of good shopping, entertainment and services people enjoyed in larger cities. "It's changed a lot. But it still has the same feel. I thought it was a great place to raise a family then and I think it's a great place to raise a family now."

Since arriving in town, Turner always lived near North Belt West, splitting his time between only two homes in his 55 years in Belleville. It was an area that was rapidly growing at the time of his arrival. He remembers when the Belt Line was just a two-lane road and that West Main Street was still divided down the middle where street car tracks used to run.

Turner's teams compiled a 155-54 record from his arrival until he stepped down as coach to take a job as assistant principal at the new Belleville East campus during its first year of operation in 1967. His time at the helm of the basketball program was as exciting as it was brief.

The rejuvenated basketball program instigated an intense period of interest in Belleville high school athletics and became a tremendous source of pride for the community. Fans would line up to get into games in the Township High school gym or football stadium. Turner called it the "golden age" of Belleville sports. There was an excitement not seen before -- or since.

"Back in those days basketball games were on Friday and Saturday nights," Turner said. "That was the big thing going on in town back then. Today there are so many other things to do that you don't see crowds like that anymore."

Turner said he can remember a game when Belleville was playing a game in East St. Louis. People were paying $25 outside the gym to buy scalped tickets to a high school basketball game, the equivalent of about $185 dollars in 2014.

Packed gyms were nothing unusual for the 1965-66 Maroons. Turner said it was tough to get a ticket to see Township High play both at home and on the road. Fans would erupt into impromptu rallies before and after games.

When the Maroons qualified for the state tournament in 1966, fans stood in line that snaked around their West Main Street campus trying to get one of 1,600 tickets allotted to the school.

But when Belleville's championship bid fell short and the team came home with the third-place trophy, Turner said he didn't expect the reaction he and his players got. He said he expected to be met at the Township High campus only by parents and girlfriends of players who would pat them on the back and wish them better luck next time.

Instead, the Maroons were surprised to see more than 1,000 Belleville residents waiting to greet the team bus at the East St. Louis-Belleville border when it arrived back in town.

The team hopped off its bus and got on a waiting fire engine that it rode along West Main Street to Public Square. Hundreds more lined the road, cheering all the way, according to newspaper reports at the time.

When they reached the Public Square, about 5,000 people cheered, waved signs and collected autographs. Turner and the players were given keys to the city by Mayor Charles Nichols. The crowd was reported to be the largest at the square since future President John F. Kennedy made a campaign stop there a month before his 1960 election.

The end of Turner's coaching career coincided with the split of Belleville Township into two schools. The original campus became Belleville West while a new school at West Boulevard and Carlyle Avenue became Belleville East.

No longer would all the city's parents and sports fans pull for one public school team. Including the smaller third high school, newly opened Althoff Catholic, Belleville fans' loyalty was split three ways.

While it was painful for Township High School to split into two schools, it was necessary because of Belleville's baby boomers.

In the years before the split, students attended Township High in shifts to make room for everyone. Still, Turner said his social studies class was packed with 36 kids.

Whether it was the instigator for things changing in the city or just a coincidence that the school split as the world changed around it, Belleville has never been the same.

"There wasn't much divisiveness in Belleville" half a century ago, Turner said. "That's the biggest difference between now and then. Now there are a lot more naysayers."

Tired of hearing more complaints than solutions about the city's issues, Turner ran for Belleville City Council in 1997 as a member of the upstart Progress Party.

He was the only candidate on that group's ticket to win election that year and he stayed on as an alderman -- although he switched parties after one term to join the Good Government Party -- until 2004 when he was appointed city treasurer. Turner had that job until 2013 when he was defeated in a re-election bid by Dean Hardt.

Turner said he's satisfied to finally retire.

"I was never interested in politics, I was interested in what was best for the city," Turner said. "I didn't want to be a politician, I wanted to be a public servant. And that's what I did for a very long time."

Turner said one of Belleville's biggest issues was that its people have been resistant to change. That's a mentality city leaders have worked hard to reverse in recent years.

"It was a nice town and people were happy with it the way it was," Turner said. So they refused to change with the times. He cited Belleville's refusal of allowing Interstate 64 to be routed through town in the 1960s, which ended up causing St. Clair Square to be on the new route in Fairview Heights instead. Downtown shops paid the price as shoppers migrated away. Once the economic hub of St. Clair County, Belleville became a bedroom community and the downtown shopping district suffered for years.

Turner said he believes Belleville is on the rise. Efforts to increase residential construction and business development in the city have put the city back in the game economically.

"Things have gone rather well for Belleville over its 200 years to go from a small village to a city of 45,000," he said. "And my hope is that it will continue to get better and better and better."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or call 618-239-2626.

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of Our Town stories celebrating Belleville's bicentennial.

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