Fayette County

Son of victim finds friend and mentor close to home

In the darkness of dawn, exactly two years ago, Clay Turner lost more than his loving and accomplished father. He lost, if only temporarily, his sense of place in the world.

"It was all kind of a blur," Turner, 20, said of the days after Comair Flight 5191 crashed and burned on takeoff from the wrong runway at Blue Grass Airport, killing 49 of 50 on board.

Only four days before, he had arrived as a freshman at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he had earned $19,000 a year in scholarships at the highly regarded Kelley School of Business.

Then, Turner's world was set spinning, his future clouded with grief and heartache.

Among those who perished on 5191 were his father, Larry Turner, 51, the nationally respected associate dean and director of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture's Cooperative Extension Service.

Two years later, after much struggle and doubt, Clay Turner will begin on Tuesday his junior year at Transylvania University.

This is the story, then, of a young man bright with promise who kept going when he wasn't sure how he could. It is the story of good friends who stood by him and helped him find his way. It is the story of how someone emerged to help keep Clay's college education on course, and in the process, became a role model, mentor and friend.

That person is Charles L. Shearer, 65, now in his 26th year as Transylvania's president, who began his career as a professor and still thinks of himself as a teacher at heart.

Wednesday night, Turner and Shearer will be among those speaking during a public memorial service for Flight 5191 at Transylvania.

Shearer first met Turner after two prominent businessmen requested that he help the young man — Luther Deaton, chairman, president and CEO of Central Bank in Lexington, and Richard Corman, founder and owner of R.J. Corman Railroad Group in Nicholasville.

Transylvania wouldn't start classes until the day after Labor Day, so there was still time for Turner to enroll with Shearer's help.

"I was immediately struck by his kindness and warmth, which were extremely helpful at that time," Turner said.

Meanwhile, two of Turner's friends, Corman's daughter Shawna Corman, a Transylvania student, and Rich Ludka, then at Transylvania and now at UK, did what good friends do. They were there for him.

IU officials were already urging Turner to spend his first semester at a school close to home. They feared that the anguish from his father's death could cause this top student — he had a 4.4 grade-point-average at Lexington Christian Academy on a weighted 4.0-point scale — to experience academic failure for the first time. They said he could return to IU the following January.

"They told Clay there would always be a seat at the Kelley School of Business with his name on it," said Lois Turner, a mathematics teacher at LCA Junior High School, Clay's mother and Larry Turner's widow.

It was Shawna Corman who suggested that Clay take a look at Transylvania.

"Honestly, when I heard it, it was just two or three days after the crash," Turner said. "I wasn't processing much."

Still, he went through the motions, knowing that "I needed to stay home to be close to my family and be there for my mom and family."

So, on Thursday, the day of the visitation for his father and the day before the funeral, Clay arrived at Transylvania with his two friends. At their suggestion, he brought a copy of his LCA transcript.

"I just expected to meet some regular admissions person," Turner said.

Instead, his friends took him to the president's office.

"When we first met," Shearer said, "there was a warm, mutual handshake. You could feel it. He was very interested in wanting to be here."

Shearer and Turner sat down in the board room and talked about Clay's high school career and what he wanted to do in college.

"I couldn't even believe he was taking time to meet me," Clay said. "I was extremely impressed."

After asking a few questions and taking a look at Turner's transcript, Shearer knew he was talking to an excellent student with many interests, including soccer, basketball and church activities.

"He fit Transylvania's profile of an outstanding, well-rounded student," Shearer said.

Clay filled out an application and was quickly admitted. Shearer awarded him a Presidential Scholarship. The president got a room for Turner in a residence hall, and assigned the university's newest student to be one of his advisees. This put Turner in Shearer's section of a required course for Transylvania freshmen designed to help them make the transition to college.

Shearer said he had to walk a fine line between giving Turner special attention without smothering him or making him feel awkward.

"You let him know that you're there but that he will not be treated differently than anybody else," Shearer said. "He had a deep sense of personal loss, and whenever you have a student like that you choose your words carefully. You just try to keep an eye on them and see how they're progressing."

Shearer walked the fine line.

"He treated me just like another freshman," Turner said. "He did that tremendously well. It was a difficult time, and being treated as normal as possible helped me with my grief."

Still, Shearer and Turner have never discussed 5191's crash.

"There's never been a time when I thought I should bring it up or he should bring it up," Shearer said.

Turner said that his fellow students have never brought up the crash, either, respecting his privacy.

Returning to school wasn't easy at first. Lois Turner recalled when Clay took his first quiz in calculus, and got a low grade.

But by year's end, he won the Stephen Austin Award that goes to the first-year student with the highest grade-point-average. So far, he has received one A-minus, in macroeconomics.

Still, he was restless. He decided to transfer to Taylor University, an evangelical Christian college in Indiana.

"I thought I wanted to go away," he said.

Turner arrived at the new school for orientation in late August 2007, then returned home to attend a memorial service commemorating the first anniversary of the crash. "I realized how much I would miss my mom and all my friends. I was extremely homesick."

Again, Shearer welcomed him with open arms at Transylvania.

"I knew once I came back I was where people cared about me," Turner said.

Although Shearer has tried to mentor Turner, he's been careful not to try to be a father figure.

Clay Turner said his father's death left a void that will never be filled.

"Larry was such an influence," said Lois Turner. "He was the rock of our family."

"I almost see Dr. Shearer as a mentor-protector," she said. "He's been primarily in the background, but he's there for Clay, as a mentor."

With two years to go in college, Clay is focused on his business major. He said he might go on to graduate school to get a master's degree in business administration, perhaps working a few years first. He might go to law school..

Or, he might pursue a newfound interest in 19th-century literature. He recently read Feodor Dostoevsky's classic Brothers Karamazov. "It's about religion and God and mankind," he said.

Turner said he might get a doctorate in literature, and become a professor, perhaps a dean, maybe even a college president.

If he goes that route, he'll be following the path his father took, and the one traveled by his mentor and friend.