Decherd Turner Dies

Famed Institutional Collector & Bookman

Dear fellow Delaware Bibliophiles:

I recently received an announcement on the death of Decherd Turner, a man I counted as friend, fellow bibliophile, and kindred spirit for several years now, no matter what Basbanes had to say about him. He died on July 7th in Austin, Texas, at the age of 79. As time elapses, we will only come to truly appreciate the influences and accomplishments of this man who may rightly be called one of the greatest American institutional book collectors of his era.

Decherd Turner served both as director of the Bridwell Library at the Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (1950-1980), and then as director of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin, TX, the position from which he retired in 1988. He was an early advocate of conservation and preservation, and managed to secure incredible collections for the institutions he served. At the Bridwell just some of his coups included assembling what is now the largest collection of 15th-century books in the Southwest. He managed to assemble the most elusive Triple Crown of fine press printing:  the Kelmscott Chaucer, the Doves Press Bible and the Ashendene Dante, all printed on real vellum! He also succeeded in acquiring the complete archives of the Ashendene Press of C. H. St John Hornby along with all states of each of the books printed by Hornby, as well as books and manuscripts from Hornby’s private library. The best overview of these spectacular treasures may be seen in the exhibition catalogue, Bridwell at Fifty–Books, Benefactors, and Bibliophiles (SMU, 2001). At the Harry Ransom Center, just one of his accomplishments was the acquisition of the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Library of English literature (commonly called the Pforzheimer Collection). He also secured the Uzielli Collection of Aldines, and brought in the MGM Gone With the Wind archives, among other bibliographic treasures. Indeed, Turner was legendary for his ability to locate and finance such remarkable acquisitions as these.

On a personal note, I have been fortunate enough to correspond with Decherd for the past four years. We’ve had many delightful exchanges, and I’ve always admired his knowledge of books printed on real vellum. Some of you may recall that he wrote the introduction to the Bromer’s publication, The Mystique of Vellum, and that he curated the 1998 “One Text, Two Results: Printing on Paper and Vellum” exhibit at the Grolier Club in New York. I have been pleased to help him, on behalf of the Bridwell Library, to expand his list of books printed on real vellum in America. For those interested, you can see this list here.

SMU awarded his its highest accolade, Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, in recognition of his lasting contributions to the University, but the real recognition of his accomplishments is summed up in a short dedication note under his name in the Bridwell at Fifty catalogue, a takeoff on Christopher Wren’s epitaph in St. Paul’s Cathedral:  Si monumentum requiris circumspice (If you would see the man’s monument, look around you). Bravo, Decherd, Bravo!

Note:  A memorial service was held on Sunday, September 1st, at Bridwell Library on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.  For further information, contact Valerie Hotchkiss, the Bridwell Library director, at (214) 768-3483. Memorial gifts may be made to Bridwell Library, P.O. Box 750476, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX 75275.

Phil Bishop
July 18, 2002