Battle Creek’s Last Elected Mayor was a WBCK Talk Show Host
This November 3rd, Battle Creek voters will choose the city’s mayor for the first time in six decades. The last popularly elected Battle Creek Mayor was a controversial talk show host on WBCK radio. His name was Raymond Turner. He rallied voters and workers, and beat a long-time political machine, and when they turned the tables on him, he mysteriously vanished.
The charismatic Turner, from Poughkeepsie, worked as an actor, was a pilot in World War II, and worked in radio in Benton Harbor before being hired by the Holmes Brothers as Program Director at AM 930 WBCK, Battle Creek in December of 1955. I asked former WBCK personality, the late Larry Collins about Turner in 2003.
“Turned out he was not much as a Program Director but was one hell of a promotions person. I learned a lot from him in that regard. He started the program “Sound Off”, one of the first talk shows in the country and it was an immediate success. He spent so much time on that show and his promotions that he paid me out of his own pocket to carry on the chores of P.D. Eventually, he became so popular in town that he decided to run for Mayor.”
Larry Collins remembers that the run for office resulted in the loss of Turner's radio job. “Because of the equal time provision, he couldn’t run for office and be on the air, so he resigned and I was named P.D. He won the race for Mayor.”
Turner’s radio show took former Mayor William Bailey and his political machine to task every day. Bailey, an attorney, had turned the Mayor’s job over to a series of hand-picked successors, and then took charge of the Rail Consolidation Board. (RCB). Listeners calling into “Sound Off” on WBCK joined Raymond Turner in discrediting members of past and present political office holders, especially Bailey and other members of the RCB. Twelve of the city’s top 15 leaders belonged to the exclusive Athelstan Club, located atop the Security National Bank (now the Milton.)
Turner moved into the city in 1958 and surprised everyone by announcing his run for Mayor in 1959. In the April election, Turner carried 22 of 26 city precincts in the largest turnout in nearly 30 years. He was 44 years old.
One reason for Turner’s success was that Battle Creek Enquirer Publisher Robert B. Miller didn’t defend Bailey and the others against the attacks, even though Miller was the vice-chair of the RCB. Miller and the paper would later turn on Turner.
The late Harriet Henderson, who attended City Commission meetings as a housewife and later reported the meeting news to WBCK radio and other stations for decades, said that Turner was the person responsible for her interest in city government She said a lot of people took an interest at that time.
In 1961, the old Bailey regime was successful in getting a new city charter passed, which not only eliminated the vote for Mayor but pretty much eliminated the Mayor’s authority in favor of a new “city manager” form of government.
Turner failed in an attempt to become a State Senator. After leaving the Mayor’s office, he tried unsuccessfully to get on the democratic ticket as Lt. Governor. And then he vanished for more than a decade.
In 1978, a man going by the name of "Don Davis", was found at a run-down motel in Vincennes, Indiana, after having had a stroke. He died at a hospital at the age of 61. They found an expired driver’s license and social security card in the name of Raymond M. Turner. Turner, (aka Davis), was working as a traveling salesman. A business associate had the names of two women, one in the Battle Creek area, that “Don Davis” had instructed he call if anything should happen to him.
After hearing the news that the former mayor was going to a pauper's grave, a local Battle Creek group raised funds to bring Turner’s body back to Battle Creek. He was buried at Oakhill Cemetery on Valentine’s Day, 1978. A reference in “Beyond These Gates” notes that a mysterious woman continued to visit and put flowers on the grave for several years.
The book quotes Turner’s ally in city government and long-time Battle Creek Central teacher Harry Wilklow, who spoke at the funeral. “In our lives there passes, from time to time, a person we just cannot forget. Such a person was Raymond Mahon Turner. He was a person we loved; a person with whom some of us became disenchanted. But he was a man none of us will forget.”
Raymond Turner arrived in Battle Creek and made a huge splash for a short time, on a mission to "drain the swamp". He then failed and faded away. His story sort of parallels that of Roy Hobbs’ in Bernard Malamud's classic, "The Natural.” Unfortunately for Turner and his supporters, it was the book ending, not the movie ending.