Ralph Turlington, former commissioner of education and force in FL politics, dies at 100

By: - May 15, 2021 5:10 pm

Commissioner of Education Ralph Turlington taking the oath of office in 1975. Credit: State Library and Archives of Florida

Ralph D. Turlington, former speaker of the Florida House and Education Commissioner, died Friday at the age of 100.

Turlington was a towering figure in Florida politics for much of his life. Born in Gainesville, he graduated from the University of Florida in 1942 after serving as business manager of the Florida Alligator and joining Florida Blue Key, a leadership fraternity which has often served as a steppingstone in Florida Politics.

Turlington went to Harvard, where he earned a master’s degree in 1943, shortly before he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army and sent to Europe. He rose to the rank of captain while serving as commander of a supply company in Northern France supporting General George Patton’s Third Army during the Battle of the Bulge.

After the war, he returned to the United States and in 1946 married Ann Gellerstedt of Atlanta.

In 1949, Turlington became an agent for State Farm Insurance Co., a business he operated for 25 years. In 1950, he ran for the Florida Legislature, representing Gainesville and Alachua County. He was reelected 11 times and served as House Speaker from 1967 to 1968.

His legislative accomplishments included getting the initial funding to establish the medical center at the University of Florida and establishing the pension system for state employees.

He left the Legislature in 1973, when Gov. Reubin Askew appointed him Commissioner of Education, overseeing public schools and colleges and serving on the Florida Cabinet.

He was elected to the position in 1974 and remained in the post until he retired in 1986.

During his final year in public office, Turlington, with the help of a key aide, Frank Mirabella, led the successful statewide campaign to establish a lottery to help fund education in Florida. Since then, the state lottery has generated more than $40 billion for public schools.

After Turlington announced plans to retire, state legislators named both the 17 story Department of Education building and the largest classroom building at the University of Florida after him.

Family members announced his death in Durham, N.C., where Turlington had lived for years.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Lucy Morgan
Lucy Morgan

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.