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From Patty Hearst to Salado
"Salado: Frontier College Town"
by Charles Turnbo

by Clay Coppedge
Charles Turnbo writes about history but he has also witnessed a fair amount it.

As an employee of the Federal Prison System, he was a public information officer during the Watergate era. He also turned the key that let heiress-turned-bank robber Patty Hearst out of prison in 1979.

But that wasn't the kind of history that most fascinated Turnbo. He was more interested in the untold multitudes who, throughout history, toiled in relative obscurity to build the country without benefit of a press agent or a criminal record.

That's the kind of history that Turnbo presents in his book "Salado: Frontier College Town." The book is being released tonight ) at a meeting of the Salado Historical Society.

"There's a tremendous interest these days in 'bad guys.'" Turnbo said last week in Salado. "Well, I'd spent most of my life with them and knew many of them well.

"My study of history allowed me to learn about some 'good guys' who contributed so much to our society."
Turnbo, 65, grew up in Wichita Falls but knew nothing of his ancestry. He had no idea that his ancestors had helped settle Bell County when it was part of the Wild West, or that Turnbo Mountain near Youngsport was named for an ancestor, Andrew Jackson Turnbo.

He discovered that fact while he was in Washington, D.C., taking some time off from the "bad guys" to nose around the National Archives. That discovery led to his book "The Texas Turnbos."
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The idea for the newest book came soon after he and his wife Beverly moved to Salado in 2003. He visited College Hill in Salado and saw the Salado College ruins and the statue of Col. Elijah S.C. Robertson, son of empessario Sterling Clack Robertson and the man who in 1859 donated the 100 acres that became Salado College and the Village of Salado.

Turnbo mentioned to Cile Ambrose, a direct descendant of the Robertsons who lives in the house that Col. Robertson built, how intrigued he was by the idea of a college way out there on the Texas frontier. "Cile told me that no one had ever written a book about it and said maybe I should. I thought, 'Maybe I will,'" Turnbo said.

And so he did.

Over the course of the four years it took Turnbo to research and write the book, its focus expanded to include a concurrent history of Salado and its college, since the two more or less evolved at the same time.

"It didn't take long to discover that the little village of Salado was a gold mine of people and events," he said. "So, with help from a lot of other people, I dug in and those rich discoveries became this book."

Salado College, like the Village, was always a little contrary to ordinary. At a time when most colleges had a church affiliation, Salado College's articles of association forbade it from becoming sectarian nor would "the peculiar doctrines of any religious denominations be taught therein."

The college was the first to operate without church or state funds and it admitted women at a time when most educated young females were sent off to finishing school. The state's first female governor, Miriam A. Ferguson, was educated at Salado College. Because of its fiercely independent nature, the college always had financial difficulties.

"Salado College was always one day away from bankruptcy," Turnbo said.

Liz Carpenter, former press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson and an esteemed author in her own right, wrote in her introduction to the book, "I thought I knew everything about Salado, the village where I was born, visit often, write about frequently and have loved for 85 years of life. But Charles Turnbo's delightful and thorough book gave me my come-uppance." The book brings Turnbo a long way from the people and places he dealt with when he worked for the prison system. It's a long way from Col. Elijah S.C. Robertson to Patty Hearst.

Hearst, the granddaughter of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped by a group of domestic terrorists known as the Symbionese Liberation Army in February of 1974.

In April of that year she was photographed wielding a fully automatic M1 carbine assault rifle during a bank robbery. She was arrested in September of 1975 and the next year was convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to seven years in prison. She had served just 22 months when President Carter commuted the sentence in February of 1979.

"I watched that whole debacle unfold," Turnbo said. "It really was a media circus."

The media descended on Pleasanton in unprecedented droves when information that President Carter was going to commute her sentence was leaked to the press. Reporters, TV crews and photographers from all over the world camped out in the prison parking lot, sleeping in their cars and vans, waiting for the moment when Turnbo would turn the key that would unlock Hearst's cell.

"There was talk that the Symbionese Liberation Army was going to assassinate her when she got out because the President had commuted her sentence," Turnbo said. "It was a very touchy situation for us."

Turnbo left all that far behind when he and Beverly retired from government service. They settled first in Colorado but the harsh Colorado winters and the wildfires of summer inclined them to look elsewhere. With his avid interest in Texas and Bell County history, Salado seemed the likeliest choice. The move has paid the kind of personal dividends he was looking for.

Dealing with the Patty Hearsts and Squeaky Frommes of Watergate conspirators brought with it a fair amount of stress. "Spending three decades in prison work required another pastime," Turnbo said. "History became my passion. It allowed me to step back in time to see how others long-gone had lived their lives."

Fortunately for people interested in Bell County history, Turnbo has shared those results.

The book is available online from Turnbobooks.com.
Copyright Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"

April 16 , 2007 Column

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