A lasting tribute: The love behind the John R. Turney Sailing Center

By many accounts, Chautauqua is hard to explain. From the windows of the John R. Turney Sailing Center, it becomes a matter of seeing what Chautauqua is.

“You get peace when you come up here, and you get tranquility, and you get a feeling of a presence,” said Jean Turney, John’s mother. “Chautauqua is hard to explain, but every facet of Chautauqua becomes within you. It’s hard to explain Chautauqua. So you can’t totally explain how important the sailing center is.”

Nearly 16 years after John lost his battle with cancer, the John R. Turney Sailing Center is celebrating its 10th operating season this summer at Chautauqua Institution.

The center has provided instruction to all ages, sailboat rentals to all levels, and a home to the Chautauqua Yacht Club, which hosts the area’s most competitive regattas.

To Dick Turney, John’s father, it wasn’t a question of whether something would be done to keep John’s memory alive, but what would have a lasting impact.

“I think I called Tom Becker the day he passed and said, ‘Tom, we’re going to do something,’ ” Dick said. “ ‘We don’t know exactly what it is — it’s going to have to do something with sailing.’ That’s really how it started.”

As a teenager, John developed an interest for sailing when his family first started coming to Chautauqua, and he started taking lessons at Boys’ and Girls’ Club.

“It really started with John — he was the sailor,” Dick said. “He was out on the lake often times with two of his three younger sisters, and, frankly, they weren’t very proficient at first because there was no instruction. They sort of learned by doing. The races they participated in over two or three years were sort of hair-raising events.”

Jean remembers “a lot of tipping and turning and leaning” during John’s early sailing days.

“We’d go out in the watch boat, and I couldn’t look,” she said. “We had a lot of friends and neighbors who were helpful in rescuing [John]. Sometimes it was tenuous as a mother. Sometimes, depending on the weather, I wouldn’t go out. I like calm days.”

Before the sailing center existed at Chautauqua, a smaller-scale sailing program at Boys’ and Girls’ Club existed to provide a basis for instruction to campers. Dave Beeson, who currently instructs at the sailing center, was fundamental in the early years of John’s instruction.

What started with Lightning sailboats, and eventually evolved into top-notch sailing vessels like C-Scows, was John’s dedication and progression as a sailor that ultimately became a family affair. The same boat that John started racing in 1991 is being used today by John Richard Beecher, John’s nephew.

John and his family, who lived in Chicago, sailed on Lake Michigan and continued to make trips to Chautauqua Lake during the summertime for weeks at a time.

The whirl of summers spent by the lake suddenly became overcast when John had been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

“Two years before his passing, he was here [in Chautauqua]. He wasn’t well, and we knew and we drove him back to Chicago and called our home and told Jean,” Dick said.

Jean remembers that conversation well.

“[John] called me,” Jean said. “He said, ‘Mom, I’ve got something to tell you.’ I said, ‘What is it? Tell me, John, I can fix anything.’ He said, ‘Mother, I have cancer.’ [And I said,] ‘Oh, OK, we’ll get it fixed.’ So we went to the Cleveland Clinic, and we did all the things that you do. Probably, I was in denial a bit and I thought we could get it fixed.”

Though he battled cancer for nearly two years, going through routine chemotherapy and surgeries, the outlook on John’s remaining years looked bleak.

He continued to sail as his physical state withered, but he was introduced to the idea of battling a mammoth trek in the sailing community: the Race to Mackinac. The 333-mile journey, departing off Navy Pier in Chicago and ending at Mackinac Island in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is a testament to a veteran sailor’s ability to deal with brutal enduring conditions.

“Sailing was in his blood and his love, and I know when he was very, very little at the end [of his life], one of his friends got him on the boat for the Mackinac Race from Chicago to Mackinac Island,” Dick said. “That’s a very strenuous, arduous endeavor for however many hours they were on that boat.”

Then, just as quickly as the winter freeze of Chautauqua transforms into a serene summer getaway, John passed away on Jan. 11, 1999, at age 43.

Dick and Jean worked to keep his memory intact.

The barebones of an existing gazebo structure, which became the office and classroom at the sailing center as it was renovated, along with donations of equipment and several boats, were presented at the opening of the sailing center on July 8, 2006, with Jean and Dick at the helm.

“I would say it probably was the most important day of my life except my marriage and the birth of my four children,” Dick said. “So it was important because I thought we were doing something in John’s memory that would have a lasting effect and particularly help young people.”

And just as obscure it is to describe Chautauqua, for the Turneys it’s just a matter of placing John’s life into the mold of the sailing center.

“I feel a very definite presence at the center with John,” Jean said. “You can’t explain it. He’s here. I hear his words and every time you see those boats, it’s a wonderful feeling. It’s a continuation of life.”