Gary Turner once spent six months living in a hand-built log cabin. With a long beard, flowing hair and a rustic home, he explored the "mountain man" life during a brief collegiate stay in Idaho.
A few years later, he and his wife, Marlene, spent eight months living in a log cabin in Wyoming's Snowy Mountain Range. They hauled their water home in milk jugs from the town well and warmed themselves beside a drafty wood stove.
Though Turner said he is most comfortable wandering through the woods in jeans and a flannel shirt or standing in a river fishing decked out in hip waders, on most days he is apt to be found professionally dressed in slacks and a sports jacket exploring a different sort of wilderness -- college.
A veteran of public affairs, education and the military, Turner officially took over the position of director at Kenai Peninsula College on Monday.
"I love teaching, and I love the college atmosphere," Turner said in an interview Thursday. "I love being able to see people, from 17 years old to 90 years old, learning. It gives me great joy to see people learn and to help facilitate that."
Turner is no stranger to the academic life. He spent 10 years putting himself through college for his bachelor's degree. Later, he attended the University of Denver for a master's in mass communication and received his doctorate in speech communication. He also is an experienced college professor and spent years working with the military and an international public relations firm.
Originally from Valley Forge, Turner spent his youth in Pennsylvania. That's where he attended undergraduate school and met his wife, a Philadelphia native. But, he said, he loved the west.
After he and Marlene's brief stay in the Wyoming cabin -- when she decided she was ready for something just a bit more modern -- Turner enlisted in the Air Force, specializing in public affairs.
He started at the Air Force Survival School in Spokane, Wash., then spent four years working with the U.S. Space Command Center.
Next, they spent a year in Belgium where Turner worked with intermediate nuclear forces treaty issues.
He returned to the United States and to school, pursuing his master's and doctorate degrees at the University of Denver. They moved on to Colorado Springs, where he taught English and literature at the Air Force Academy and became the director of the school's visitor center.
Finally, the Turners got their first taste of Alaska, spending three years at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks -- where he furthered his love of teaching by leading communication classes at the University of Alaska.
The family moved to Ketchikan for a brief tour when Turner took a job as the state director of Alaskans for Drug Free Youth, then he became the continuing education director, academic counselor and communication teacher at the University of Alaska Southeast.
It was then that Turner was offered an opportunity he couldn't pass up -- a job with NASA.
Though he said the idea of leaving Alaska for Huntsville, Ala., was less than desirable, the opportunity to work with the agency was just too good to refuse.
He spent four years heading up media and community relations and education outreach before he was recruited to serve as senior vice president at Weber Shandwick Worldwide, a public relations firm based in Bellevue, Wash.
Last month, Turner, his wife and their 20-year-old son, Traye, made one last move -- to the Kenai Peninsula.
"I've lusted after (Ginger Steffy's) job for 10 years, ever since I got to Fairbanks in 1992 and started fishing down here," Turner said. "I always thought, 'Someday ... .' It just shows if you work hard enough and long enough and talk to God a little, dreams do come true."
The move to the peninsula is the family's 15th move in 20 years, but this one, Turner said, is for good.
"I loved Fairbanks, my wife loved Ketchikan, and we both loved it here," Turner said. "I decided 10 years ago I was going to try to get the job here or we would retire here. Either way, we were coming back. This is where we are putting down our final roots."
"I've lived all over the world; I've been to all 50 states and most of Europe," he added. "We had our choice of where to set down our roots. This is it, we don't plan on leaving."
The college director job, left open by Steffy's retirement last spring, was a perfect opportunity.
Turner said he feels prepared for the job not only because of his vast work experience, but also because he can relate well to the college's mixed student body.
He started working 20 to 30 hours a week at the age of 11 and knows the struggles of nontraditional students trying to pursue an education while working and raising families. He also is familiar with the experiences of traditional students, though, after spending his graduate school days focusing exclusively on learning.
"I've been on both sides of the coin," Turner said. "I can relate to both types of students we have here."
And relating is a big part of what he considers a director's job.
"I feel the college director has to be very accessible, very open. I want to meet everybody I can. I want to be recognized going to the grocery store."
As he takes over the new position, Turner said he owes a debt of gratitude to those who have gone before him. He praised the many accomplishments of Steffy and former college president Clayton Brockel.
"The college has been blessed by strong leadership. These two leaders epitomize what the college has been to the community," Turner said. "The college is in good shape -- great shape. I just want to maintain that excellence and build upon it."
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