by Bill McEwen

How do you best honor someone who gave her all to Fresno and its families while living her life out of the headlines?

You could commission a statue of Kathleen Turnipseed hugging a child, smiles on their faces, and display it prominently at a park or school.

Turnipseed, who died Sept. 26 at her home at the age of 71, certainly is deserving of that tribute.

But her remarkable legacy — battling injustice where ever she saw it, standing up for those unable to fight for themselves, and finding solutions for the toughest of problems — deserves to be memorialized in another special way.

All of her friends, all of the families with special-needs children and everyone who wants to lift up Fresno should embrace her life story and unrelenting determination to make our city a better place.

“She was not afraid to rock the boat to ensure that students and families with special needs had access to the same opportunities afforded to other students of privilege,” says Heather Stewart, a school psychologist for Fresno Unified School District. “Kathleen understood how transformational education is not only to Fresno Unified but also to the greater Fresno community.

All of her friends, all of the families with special-needs children and everyone who wants to lift up Fresno should embrace her life story and unrelenting determination to make our city a better place.

“This was also weighed with a clear knowledge of the negative effects to students and community when they are denied access to education. I could always count on her to do what was right for students and our community. I regret that I was not able to tell her this while she was alive.”

This is part of what Lisa Bundy of Fresno posted on Turnipseed’s memorial page:

“Kathleen, I always knew when I reached out for your assistance with one of my ‘situations’ that I could count on you for your guidance and fierce advocacy. Your knowledge and experience was a gift to so many, including myself. Countless families were blessed to have you on their side.”

A Life-Long Learner

Turnipseed, indeed, fought the good fight all of her life and notched many victories on behalf of children and families despite never graduating from college. That said, she was a life-long learner and voracious reader. What she didn’t know, she found out, and seemingly never forgot.

After graduating from Roosevelt High School in 1964, she threw her energy into the Civil Rights movement and was arrested while leading a protest in the Deep South. Her father, knowing that she would never back down, pulled strings and had her put on a plane back to Fresno for her safety.

About now, you might wonder how a woman with Turnipseed’s fire ended up as an ombudsman, a position that usually demands a deep reservoir of grace and tact.

Answer: She did it her way.

And it was set into motion when Turnipseed’s two adopted children, Patrick and Nicole, weren’t receiving the appropriate education and support at school. She went to bat for them and from there it grew into standing up for other special-needs children, too.

Advocate to Ombudsman

Credit former Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson for seeing that Turnipseed could help more families as the district’s ombudsman than as an advocate.

“She was a superior problem solver and incredibly straightforward, driven toward meeting the needs of the people in a way that no one else was doing or could be doing,” Hanson said. “She could wade into the thorniest of issues and find a way to a solution that was satisfying to all. There was not a single time in working with Kathleen Turnipseed that I didn’t follow her recommendation. And I don’t know of a single thing that she resolved that unwound sometime later.

“I was terribly saddened by the news of her death. She was someone who gave her whole life to service (of others).”

Sometimes, the “solution” required Fresno Unified to do a lot more for a student than it was doing. Turnipseed never flinched in her recommendations, co-workers say.

“Kathleen told me, and I believe her absolutely, that if she felt a student was not receiving the appropriate services, and all avenues had been exhausted, she would refer the family to an attorney herself to take up the case,” said Susan Wittrup, a school psychologist for the district. “She never considered her employment with Fresno Unified as a conflict of interest when it came to kids. Kathleen also confronted parents head-on if they were being unreasonable. I have never met a more clear, determined soul.”

Busy Even in Retirement

Turnipseed retired in March, but wanted no part of taking it easy. She went into training with Breaking the Chains so that she would work with victims of human trafficking.

She also made travel plans that revolved around seeing America’s National Parks and learning about wolves, grizzly bears and other animals.  Of course, she would have taken her two beloved dogs, Togo and Annie. Those dogs went with her everywhere — hotels and restaurants included.

Those final plans will go unrealized, but Turnipseed’s impact marches on. It will march even further if we bring even a little bit of her integrity and commitment to do the right thing to the challenges ahead.

(If you knew Kathleen and want to share a story about her or express your appreciation for her efforts, write in the comment box at the bottom of the page.)

Kathleen Turnipseed

Aug. 19, 1946 – Sept. 26, 2017

Visitation: Whitehurst Sullivan Burns & Blair Funeral Home, Wednesday, Oct.11, 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Mass of Christian Burial: The Shrine of St. Therese Catholic Church, Thursday, Oct. 12, 10 a.m.. Interment to follow at St. Peter’s Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in her honor to Angels of Grace Foster Family Agency of Fresno.


One Response

  1. Kimberly Quinn

    I had the pleasure of working with Kathleen Turnipseed on issues with my special needs children. She was fair and honorable, but most of all she was doggedly determined to find solutions. She will missed in Fresno Unified.


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