Community reflections on the passing of Clyde Turner

Clyde Turner
Photo by Travis Lee

Clyde Turner (1951-2022) in all respects had two lives. His first was as a Minnesota Golden Gopher basketball star in the early 1970s. His second, as a decades-long advocate for Black youth and families perhaps, was much more impactful.

Turner, born in Mississippi and raised in Champaign, Ill., died in the early morning of August 9 after dealing with health issues for several years. He touched at least four generations through his Clyde Turner Educational Basketball Camps, which he started in the 1980s and operated for nearly 35 years until the pandemic hit.  

First, at a South Minneapolis community center, Turner’s camps moved to Washburn High School as week-long day camps. For over a decade, he loaded up buses and took urban youth to spend a week on a patch of land outside Annadale, Minn. as well.  

When the cost of holding overnight camps become too costly, Turner opted to hold day camps all over the Twin Cities that drew both urban and suburban youth as young as six and older, capping attendance to around 17 years old.  

Turner also was the first to hold holiday camps based on the seven principles of Kwanzaa for many years. He kept the cost of all his camps, whether day or overnight, free or minimum to all and rarely turned away anyone who couldn’t pay.  

Instead, he tirelessly solicited funders and donations throughout the year to pay for rental facilities, transportation, meals, and staff. Each camper at the end of camp got free T-shirts, and trophies and/or medals were annually handed to individual winners. 

As running camps became harder, Turner nonetheless found ways to keep them going—only the pandemic (his last camp was in 2019) and his health slowed him down and forced him to shut down what had become for many a summertime community tradition.  

Besides his camps, Turner was nationally renowned for his advocacy for same-race adoptions as a social worker. He worked at Big Brothers Big Sisters, and then Family Alternatives, a local private adoption agency. He also worked for Ramsey County and a brief stint as director of Sabathani Community Center. 

He finally realized his dream of a foundation that mentored young people in schools and focused his full-time efforts on his P.A.C.E. Foundation (Past Athletes Concerned about Education), which held weekly small support groups for Black male middle school and high school students in urban and suburban schools, enlisting a cadre of community members and others as mentors.

When it came to young people, Turner consistently showed them that athletics isn’t the be-all but a vehicle to success in all areas:

“I know who I am today was shaped by Clyde,” said Robert Finney, who attended Turner camps as a youngster, and later worked at his camp as a counselor/coach. Now a senior sales enablement manager, “[He] pushed me to be the best version of who I can and could be,” said Finney.

“He was an inspiration to me,” said Craig LeSuer, a former camp administrator, local teacher, and coach. Now a principal in Kalamazoo, Mich., “I can’t tell you how many times I thought of him. How they have prepared me to be a better man and a better mentor and a better father. A better principal and a better educator.”

Photographer Travis Lee said, “He was always there as a mentor and friend. I was introduced to Clyde Turner by his teammate Ollie Shannon when I was a freshman at the [University of Minnesota] in 1981. I always admired how he carried himself. I watched him over the years give selflessly to the community.”

Robbinsdale Cooper High School administrator Leonard Jones first met Turner at his camp when he was a student at Patrick Henry. He later worked as a coach. Jones said he was honored when Turner asked him to speak to campers at what would be his last day camp in 2019.

“That meant the world to me because the kids didn’t know who I was,” remembered Jones, a Sounds of Blackness member and former state and college track champion. On Turner, “[The] one thing that really stood out to me was he will always be there for you,” said Jones.

Turner did what he did without fanfare or self-promotion: “You talking about someone of power and influence—that’s him,” said Minneapolis South Boys Basketball Coach Joe Hyser who worked several of Turner’s camps. “Clyde gave a lot of us young people who were interested in coaching [our] first chance coaching,” noted the Minneapolis City Conference’s longest-tenured boys’ basketball coach since 1996.   

“He saw something in me and he made me a [camp] commissioner. Here I am the only White guy in the whole camp and I’m one of the lead commissioners. I’ve never seen anyone who could understand youth or young kids like he did,” marveled Hyser.  

He added, “He’s one of the top three people that I’ve ever met in my life who could understand the motivations and the challenges and so forth. He’s so patient with so many of these kids. There are so many of these kids who would have been kicked out to the curb, but yet he just always gave them chances.”

Richard Coffey, a former Gopher, and NBA player, now a motivational speaker and chief programs officer at local transitional housing agency 180 Degrees, said of Turner: “When you lose a brother like that, who replaces him to do those types of things? How he gave to the community and how he gave to people of color.

“The conversations that I’ve had with him over the years,” continued Coffey, “and how he was always positive. Always in a great mood. Always talking about focusing on helping someone else. It was never focused on himself. He was always focusing on serving someone else other than himself. We don’t have enough brothers like him around.”

Quincy Lewis, a Minnesota grad and assistant AD said, “He always had this very warm and welcoming demeanor.”

“I don’t know I could ever repay Clyde,  said Robert Mestas, a program trainer for Innocent Technologies whom Turner served as a Big Brother when he was 10 years old. 

“If it wasn’t for him, just the way that I operate, the way my mentality, what it is today, I can’t thank God enough for everything that he’s done for me, for the community, for my family,” concluded Mestas.

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Funeral arrangements for Clyde Turner are scheduled for Saturday, August 20 at 1 pm at Washburn McReavy Chapel-Edina, 50th and MN-Highway 100.

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