Editor’s Note: This article has been edited to correct the length of Turner’s tenure, Mark Hamilton’s position as UA President and the selection process for choosing Turner’s replacement.
Gary Turner, longtime director of Kenai Peninsula College, announced Wednesday that he will retire at the end of this academic year.
“It’s bittersweet,” Turner said Thursday. “I’m gonna miss the heck out of the KPC people, so it was really difficult when I announced it yesterday. People were shocked.”
Turner said it’s a decision he’s been weighing for some time, but it’s also happening sooner than he originally planned.
“I started thinking of it about a year ago when my goal was to get 20 years as the KPC director, so that would have meant retirement in 2022,” Turner said. “And I’ve had some health issues over the last three years that are under control but, you know, the job of a college director is really stressful, and I’m ready to do life with less stress. So I did all my figuring, looked at my finances and investments. I’ll be 66 when I retire, so I sat down with my wife, and we decided we can afford it.”
Although Turner is looking for less stress, he said he has no plans to slow down in his retirement.
“I’m keeping a list as to what I might try. You know, maybe some boards, maybe elected office,” Turner said. “I’m not the kind of person that can sit around and not do anything. I’ve been working since I was about 11 years old, and so work is pretty much my life. Which is probably part of the problem.”
Turner’s colleague Talis Colberg, who is the director of Matanuska-Susitna Community College, said Turner has always had a strong work ethic.
“I don’t know that Gary has ever taken a vacation,” Colberg said. “And it’s a very true statement that I can call him any time of the day and he will always get right back. He lives and breathes that job and has a passion for that place that’s palpable.”
Turner’s son, daughter-in-law and grandsons have also made a home for themselves on the Kenai Peninsula, so Turner said he’s here to stay.
When Turner officially retires next year, he will have been the director of KPC for 19 years. If things had played out differently, though, his tenure could be closer to 30 years by now.
“I applied for a job as English faculty here, oh my goodness, 30 years ago, maybe,” Turner said. “And I didn’t make the cut.”
At the time, Turner had just retired as a captain in the U.S. Air Force and had been stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks. He was already familiar with the college and the Kenai Peninsula from weekend fishing trips down to Homer and up the Kenai River. After he didn’t get the job, Turner moved to Bellevue, Washington, and worked as senior vice president for a large PR firm. Although the money was good, Turner hated the job, and kept his eyes on KPC for another opening.
When the position of director opened up at KPC in 2002, the same position became available at Matanuska-Susitna Community College in Palmer. Turner applied for both, and both colleges offered him the job.
“I chose KPC. I liked the area better than the Mat-Su. The Mat-Su is beautiful too, but the peninsula just feels like it’s been in my soul way before this lifetime. I don’t know why, but it is,” Turner said.
Colberg joked that choosing KPC over the Mat-Su was one of the only mistakes Turner made in his career.
“Because the Mat-Su is a better place, right?” Colberg said. For all the kind words Colberg had to say on Turner’s behalf, he did have one bone to pick with the retiring KPC director.
“Once when we were fishing on the Kenai River, he made me throw my world-record salmon back in the water because he said he could do better,” Colberg said. “And we never got another one that day.”
When asked what the UA system will be losing with Turner’s retirement, Colberg kept it simple.
“Our grandfather,” Colberg said.
A legacy of accomplishments
Under Turner’s leadership, KPC has gone through many changes and developments. When asked to list some of his major accomplishments as director, Turner pointed to the team of faculty and staff that he has spent time building, his role in improving relations between the Kenai River Campus and the Kachemak Bay Campus and his early push for a robust distance-learning program at the college.
“I’m probably most proud of being able to pull together a team and lead them,” Turner said. “We have amazing people, and it’s not just the boss. I take virtually no credit for what KPC is and what we’ve done. We call ourselves a family, and we are.”
When Turner first arrived as director in 2002, there was already a long history of tension between KPC’s main campus in Soldotna and the campus in Homer, according to “Keeping the Fire Burning: A 50-year History of Kenai Peninsula College” by Tony Lewis and Clark Fair. The Homer campus had long tried to separate from KPC in order to become a more independently recognized institution, and many faculty and staff based in Homer felt as if the campus was treated like a branch of the main campus in Soldotna.
“There wasn’t a lot of communication between the campuses,” Turner said. “There was more competition and very little collaboration, and I understood the reasons why, and I set out to work on that.”
One of Turner’s first actions as director was to take all of the KPC staff from each campus on a weekend retreat in Cooper Landing. Turner said there were no specific goals for that retreat, other than for the colleagues of the two campuses to get to know each other better.
The retreat sparked at least one major change: In 2003, the Soldotna campus was renamed the Kenai River Campus and the Homer campus was renamed Kachemak Bay Campus, to give the two campuses equal stature under the umbrella of Kenai Peninsula College.
Although there have been efforts from KBC since then to separate themselves from KPC, Turner said that the relationship between the two colleges is much-improved from where it was when he first arrived.
“I’m real happy to say that the two campuses work great together,” Turner said. “We are KPC. All of us. And people see that.”
Turner also successfully pushed for the funding needed for major construction projects on the KPC campus, including the construction of the 96-bed residence hall and the Career and Tech Building, both multimillion dollar efforts that were completed in 2013. The projects were the result of bond proposals that Alaska residents voted to approve in 2010, and Turner played a major role in advocating for those bond measures and getting them passed.
The residence hall in particular was a pet project of Turner’s from the very beginning of his tenure at the college. Every KPC director going back to Clayton Brockel had pushed for student housing at one point in their careers. Turner was able to go from having the idea shot down by then-UA President Mark Hamilton in 2003 to opening the doors of the dorms after a decade of fighting to make it happen, according to “Keeping the Fire Burning.
Recognizing the unique challenges that educators, students and parents are faced with in this academic year, Turner will continue in his role as KPC director until the fall of 2021. This also gives the UAA Chancellor Cathy Sandeen time to search for Turner’s replacement.
“I also owed it to the faculty and staff at KPC. I owed them the time to get used to the idea,” Turner said. “When folks depart it can be difficult, emotionally. I know it’s emotional for me.”
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, community colleges and universities across the country have had to implement or improve their distance-learning capabilities. Turner has been prioritizing distance education at KPC since 2005, and the college has had a program in place since 2007.
“I was fortunate I had a number of faculty that were early adopters and innovators that were willing to dive into that pool,” Turner said. “And we exploded from there.”
In the first semester of distance learning at KPC in 2007, 169 students had enrolled in nine online classes, according to “Keeping the Fires Burning.” By the spring semester of 2012, about half of KPC’s entire enrollment participated in distance learning. Turner said that all those years of building up the program meant that the college was well-prepared for 2020, when COVID-19 hit and made distance learning the norm rather than the exception.
“Before the pandemic, about 60% of our credits were delivered via distance learning,” Turner said. “And now almost all of our faculty, with the exception of a few, were able to do distance learning. So were we in a better position than other schools? Oh yeah, we were.”
Turner said he is working on a sort of “transition guidebook” for the next director that will lay out the details of the job and what to expect, much like his predecessor, Ginger Steffy, gave to him. He also plans to make himself available as a mentor, should they need it.
“I’m only a phone call away, and I live across the river from the college so I’ll be close by,” Turner said.
Historical information for this article was taken from the book “Keeping the Fire Burning: A 50-year History of Kenai Peninsula College” by Tony Lewis and Clark Fair as well as archived articles from the Peninsula Clarion.