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The university that Meb built


In these last few days of H. Mebane Turner's nearly 33-year presidency of the University of Baltimore, nearly everyone had a Meb story.

About how he parlayed an unwanted parcel of railroad land into a parking garage.

About how he rescued the faded Lyric Opera House and restored it physically and financially, defying many doubters.

About how he fell in love, married and became a father at 56, after years of eligible bachelorhood.

About how folks greet him by name on his daily walks through Mount Royal and Midtown-Belvedere, where some people call him the Mayor, others the Octopus for the way he's grabbed up property for the university.

But even critics of the 71-year-old Turner agree on one thing: Midtown Baltimore is a much improved neighborhood since he arrived in 1968 and became UB president a year later.

He retires tomorrow, the senior president among Maryland college and university chiefs - public and private - and, according to the American Council on Education, the longest-tenured public college or university chief in the nation.

To sum up Turner's presidency: He took an undistinguished private university with a law school attached and turned it into a mature state university with full accreditation, three doctoral programs and respected business and law schools.

And wheeling and dealing over three decades, Turner expanded UB's urban campus from three properties on 2.4 acres in 1970 to 40 properties on 14 acres today. Buying, selling and trading buildings and land in three directions from UB's oldest existing building at 1420 N. Charles St. - and adding new buildings - Turner transformed the university and reinvigorated a slumping part of the city, says William Donald Schaefer, former mayor and governor.

"He's a visionary," says Schaefer, who sometimes clashed with Turner but relied on him for advice and kept him on for 10 1/2 stormy years as president of the City Jail Board.

"When Meb moved into this part of town, it was pretty much a disaster," remembers Fred Lazarus IV, the 24-year president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, UB's neighbor to the northwest. "There were rundown auto dealerships, peep shows and bars. All that's changed, and most of the credit goes to Meb."

Yesterday, Turner spent much of his last day at his office attending to final details of a $1 million pledge from alumnus and MBNA executive Vernon H.C. Wright (Class of '69) and his wife, Lucy.

The gift, which landed on Friday, was part of the school's successful capital fund-raising campaign, which has raised $21 million since 1998, including nearly $5 million from MBNA, the giant Delaware credit card issuer.

As he signed papers and finished business, Turner greeted colleagues and employees who stopped to say goodbye.

"I knew this was going to happen," said his personal assistant, Beverly Randall. "I told everyone he's going to work till the last minute."

Emily Greenberg, director of the university's law school library for the past 28 years, visited, saying she had mixed feelings about his leaving, but added, "He's doing the right thing. He's a gentleman of the old school."

Turner was 38 when he arrived at the university, having once worked in Baltimore as a Merrill Lynch stockbroker. He'd grown up in Richmond, Va., the only son of a tobacco company executive, and had "gone from probation to the dean's list" at the University of Virginia "after learning that one way to succeed in college is to attend class."

He earned a divinity degree from New York's Union Theological Seminary and, after two years as an Army chaplain, returned to New York to earn a master's degree at Columbia Teachers College. He was dean of students at what was then George Mason College in Fairfax, Va., when UB President Thomas G. Pullen Jr. asked Turner to return to Baltimore as provost.

One year later, in 1969, he was named president upon Pullen's retirement.

Catherine R. Gira, president of Frostburg State University, who was Turner's acting dean and provost, remembers looking out her office windows at the seedy neighborhood back then. A strip joint stood where the university's new business school is today. Also in sight was a hotel of dubious reputation. Today it houses UB offices and classrooms.

Nearby, in the 1200 block of N. Charles St., stands Turner's latest accomplishment: the Queen Anne Belvedere Apartments. A block south of the campus epicenter, the 76 restored units feature such modern amenities as high-speed computer links, and they're priced within range of UB students.

"It's really our first student housing," says Turner of the Queen Anne redevelopment, which opened a year ago. "You need people in the area around the clock to attract bars and dry cleaners and keep things alive."

Gira credits Turner with "having the ability to see in his mind's eye what the neighborhood will look like years ahead. There aren't many of us who have that ability."

Some of Turner's deals are the stuff of lore. In the mid-1970s, he took an option on Penn Central Railroad property, knowing that the railroad was on the brink of bankruptcy. Those 6 acres became available, and UB snatched them up at a reasonable price, assuring parking for commuter students and concertgoers for decades to come. Later, Turner sold part of the Bolton Yard lot for light rail right-of-way and used the profit to build the Biddle Street garage.

In 1976, the Lyric and UB entered an alliance, with Turner becoming chairman of the Lyric executive committee. (Some members of the Lyric and UB boards overlap but the boards are independent of each other.) Six years later, after $14 million in renovations, the Lyric reopened as a multipurpose hall featuring the Baltimore Opera and Broadway-style productions.

"The Lyric has never had to ask the state for operating funds," says Robert W. Schaefer, a UB alumnus who has served on both the Lyric and university boards. "That's more than most other Baltimore cultural institutions can say."

Saving the Lyric "was my idea," is the way Turner puts it. "I knew some of those fellows over there [at the Lyric], and we asked them if they could use a little help. To this day, the Lyric is self-supporting," Turner says.

William Donald Schaefer, now the state comptroller, admires Turner for seeing the potential in the Lyric. "He could see that it could make money," Schaefer says. "I wanted to buy it for the city or the state - I forget which - but he said, 'No, I can make a success of it.' And he has."

Robert Schaefer, Gira and others believe UB wouldn't have survived without state takeover. Turner lobbied for two years, "touching every base," says Gira, to push the bill through the General Assembly in 1975. He was helped by the fact that one in seven legislators was a UB alumnus.

As a public university, UB enjoyed a reliable flow of operating revenue and could plan accordingly. But there was a price: To appease other schools in the system competing for freshmen, UB agreed to admit only upper-level students as undergraduates, accepting primarily transfers from community colleges.

"It was a tradeoff," says Robert Schaefer. "We joined the state system but gave up the first two years. But it was a deal that probably saved the school." (In 1989, UB became part of the University System of Maryland.)

Turner says the toughest decision of his tenure was to eliminate interscholastic sports. That came in the spring of 1983, when the university was losing $100,000 a year on sports and had to use private resources to cover the losses. Dropping sports was particularly disappointing to Turner, who had wrestled and played football at the University of Virginia and had won a national title in club wrestling in New York City.

Turner has his share of critics. From time to time, professors in both the law and business schools have complained of inattention, and some say the UB president spends more time and effort manipulating property than leading academically.

And not all of Turner's deals have paid off. The Odorite building at Mount Royal and Maryland avenues, which UB bought 12 years ago to make room for a new student union, remains in limbo while preservationists and the university squabble over what to do with the building's historic walls.

"As a campus, UB is somewhat disjointed," says Fred B. Shoken, a Baltimore historian. "They haven't done a good job from an urban design point of view or an architectural point of view. If they were more creative, there could be a central space where lots of activities are going on."

In an interview in his office, Turner twirls his glasses and adjusts his trademark bow tie. He says he's used to such criticism. "People don't realize that it takes time to get things done."

Aware that some consider him an empire builder, Turner takes pains to point out UB's academic successes. "The thing I'm proudest of," he says, "is not building structures, but building a competent academic program and the faculty that supports it."

Except for a disappointing 18 months living in the Baltimore County countryside - "it was fine until the heating bills came out" - Turner has been a city dweller and city lover. In his early years, he maintained a bachelor pad downtown and earned a reputation as a dandy.

"That's quite exaggerated," he says now, "although I did have a few dates." Bachelorhood began to unravel 20 years ago when Turner met his future wife Iva (pronounced Eva) Martire in an elevator at the Maryland Institute. They were married two years later, and Turner found himself a first-time father well into middle age. Fifteen-year-old Hal just finished his sophomore year at Gilman School, where his mother recently was promoted to head of the Upper School. The family lives in Guilford.

The Turners discuss university business - and retirement - on long evening walks with their dog. "We've talked about his retirement for five years," says Iva. "He is living proof that building a university is a slow process requiring the capacity of endurance. ... But he wanted to leave before people wanted to get rid of him."

Turner's retirement coincides with the successful completion of a $23 million fund-raising campaign. He'll be replaced by Robert L. Bogomolny, 63, a former pharmaceutical company executive and law school dean who lives in Illinois.

In retirement, Turner plans to travel, put his feet up on the porch railing of his Ocean City condo and help the Lyric with the last major stage of its redevelopment - the expansion of its back stage. The City Council named the new Charles Street bridge for him, and he's proud that the old City Jail Board meeting chamber, where he hired three wardens during his decade as president, is the "H. Mebane Turner Room."

"It took me a long time to leave," he says, "but I like to think that the University of Baltimore is just getting started."

Sun staff writer Josh Mitchell contributed to this article.

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