Houston Park Dept. Director Joe Turner hangs up his hat after 13 years

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Joe Turner has been Houston's Parks Department Director for 13 years, serving three mayors, and every person who visits a city park, from large ones, like Memorial and Hermann Parks, to pocket parks nestled in Houston neighborhoods.

Now Turner decided to move on, and, well, move. Turner's daughter and grandchildren are waiting for him and his wife in New Braunfels, where they're making their new homes.

Mayor Sylvester Turner tore up Turner's resignation letter, until he was convinced his parks director was serious.

A lot of department directors move on with little fanfare, but Turner received a retirement sendoff Friday at one big project he saw from idea to completion.

Emancipation Park, founded more than a century ago, was once home to the only public pool for African Americans in the area.

It's been expanded, refurbished, and reimagined, thanks in part to Turner.

The park is also a testament to the high regard people have for the park director, from park donors, to politicians, to people pushing for improvements to parks in their own neighborhoods.

"I don't have a vision. That's up to the people who know what they want in their community park," Turner said. "If we can put a bright green spot in that community, we can change neighborhoods, and lives."

The difference, people will tell you, is that Turner listens.

"He's the best kind of public servant," said Barbara Quattro, who lives in Alief.

Quattro asked for trees for her community park. Turner found some, donated by Mayor Bill White. They're tall now.

"Every time I see those trees, I think of Joe," Quattro said.

After graduating from the University of Houston, Turner worked for Burger King, eventually acquiring a franchise.

"It was all about customer service," said Turner. "And that applies to the parks department just as much."

Turner gave up fast food for the parks department in Harris County Precinct 2, and then became Houston's parks director.

"My motto is, just get it done. The other motto, I know we don't have any money. I knew that when you walked in the room. Now tell me how we're going to get it done."

Turner did it by twisting arms at the city, and bringing in donors and philanthropists. It's not always enough to meet the needs for every park, but people who work with him believe Turner tries, and when he can't succeed, he lets them know.

Preston Rowe is a super-neighborhood president who considers the parks director a friend.

"I thank him for all the small things he's done for us," Rowe said. "Sometimes, the small things matter more than the big."

This week, Turner continued with the same booked schedule he's had for 13 years, including picking up another million dollar state grant in Austin for the parks department.

Some projects in the pipeline now will be completed by his successor, while he's enjoying time with his family.

"I'm just a guy who loves parks," Turner said. "Because parks last forever and we change lives with a park. That's the fulfilling part."

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