This spring, the Walden community lost its founding members—but the Turners’ pioneering spirit and love of learning live on.
In 1954, Rita Tumorinson was working as a third grade teacher in a small town on Long Island. She loved teaching, delighting students with her innovative methods. After work, she went out with friends, often attending lectures and sometimes stopping in at a neighborhood pub.
That was where Bernie Turner, a young labor organizer, spotted Rita from across the room and was instantly smitten. Favoring the direct approach, he pushed out a chair and asked Rita to sit down as she walked by on the way to the bar. She did.
“It was like instant glue,” she later recounted. “Everything just clicked right away. There was an enormous attraction.” Rita and Bernie began dating and were soon inseparable. Eight months later, they married. And 16 years after that, they founded the university that would help redefine distance learning.
Born on July 24, 1926, to Jewish immigrants in the Bronx, Bernie faced challenging circumstances early in life. When the Great Depression hit, his family barely made enough income to survive. And as a young man in January 1945, he marched across Europe as part of the Third United States Army during World War II, earning a Bronze Star for his service.
After returning home, Bernie attended Columbia University on the GI Bill and earned a degree in economics in 1950. Six months after graduation, he joined The National Industrial Conference Board as an analyst of business practices throughout the United States. He didn’t like what he saw. As he would later tell Wade Keller, author of the 2009 biography Aspire Toward the Highest: Bernie and Rita Turner and the Founding of Walden University, “Workers were simply treated as assets, and could be discarded, ignored, or what have you at the pleasure of the corporation.”
Eager for a career shift, Bernie enrolled in a graduate program and found a new vision of social justice. He quit his job and became a labor organizer, advocating for better wages and working conditions for garment workers and successfully convincing some shops to join the union.
As Bernie recounted to Keller, “It dawned on me that I really could be persuasive in a very significant manner. It was a turning point in my life.”
ita’s story began much like Bernie’s. Born on March 7, 1931, she was the second child of Jewish immigrant parents who would lose everything in the Great Depression.
As a child, Rita devoured books from the local public library and was an excellent student. After graduating from high school, she got a job to help contribute to the family income, but her love of learning inspired her to do something no woman in her family had done before: attend college.
Her parents were reluctant about her plans to pursue higher education and a career—but Rita was determined.
When she told her boss that she was leaving her job to attend college, she was nervous about what his reaction might be. But, as Rita recalled in the Keller biography, he surprised her. “Good for you!” he exclaimed. “The money you make here will disappear, but your education will always stay with you.” She never forgot those words.
Starting in the late ’40s, Rita began earning her degree at Brooklyn College, setting her on a course that would lead her to a lifelong partnership with Bernie.
After they married in December 1954, the Turners settled in Queens. Rita continued to teach while pursuing a master’s degree at The City College of New York. Bernie continued as a union organizer, but after a series of dangerous confrontations, he decided to follow Rita’s lead and become a teacher. At age 30, he enrolled at Hofstra University to pursue a master’s degree.
It was during this time that the young couple became parents. Their son, David, was born in 1959, followed by daughters Amy, in 1961, and Tammy, in 1965. The couple also became active in several political causes, including the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. The two, often with their children in tow, became regular fixtures at organizing events and protest marches.
As the ’60s came to a close, Bernie realized he would need to earn a PhD to advance from part-time adjunct professor to full-time academic. But as he looked into doctoral programs, he discovered an obstacle he hadn’t anticipated: Every program he considered would require him to quit his teaching job to attend school full time.
As Rita later recalled, Bernie’s frustration was the spark that would lead to the creation of Walden University. “He suggested that if we put our heads together and concentrated on the development of an educational institution that devoted itself to positive social change, we would not only make a very good team, we would also accomplish the larger mission,” she said in Aspire Toward the Highest. “I accepted, and that was the beginning of Walden.”
A grand vision took shape. It would be a university without a campus, without buildings, and, as their daughter Tammy would later recount, “without a football team.” Students would work independently during the academic year, giving them the flexibility to continue teaching, and then come together in person during their summer break for an intensive residency program.
Bernie and Rita kicked off a guerilla marketing campaign designed to test interest in their idea. Rita wrote a two-page letter detailing their proposal, and they mailed it out to several thousand educators across the U.S. Then they took a well-deserved vacation.
The Turners were met with a surprise when they returned. “Arriving at home they were absolutely stunned,” Keller writes. “On the front doorstep were two huge mailbags. There were hundreds of letters: ‘Yes! Count me in.’ ”
A university was born.
In July 1971, Walden University held its first summer residency at the Cove Inn in Naples, Florida. The grounds were secluded enough that the students could focus on their PhD studies, but equipped with family-friendly facilities. The result was a kind of academic summer camp atmosphere. Students loved it, and word of this bold new experiment in education began to spread.
Bernie and Rita decided to make Naples their permanent home. By its third year, however, Walden had so many qualified applicants, the Turners needed to find larger venues for the summer sessions. Walden’s headquarters relocated to Minneapolis in 1982. Walden continued to grow, and in 1990 achieved accreditation from The Higher Learning Commission.
By 1992, the Turners were ready to retire and sold their stake in the university. Even so, they remained close—to each other and to the institution they had founded. In 1995, they were awarded honorary doctorates from Walden in recognition of their pioneering work to expand access to higher education for all.
Rita died in Naples on April 10, 2021, a little over a month after celebrating her 90th birthday. Bernie died less than a month later on May 4, 2021.
Their legacy lives on through the values instilled in the university they founded: educational access, advancement opportunities for working professionals, and an enduring commitment to social change. Walden University could not have expanded its community to more than 158,000 alumni around the world without the grand vision and guiding inspiration of Rita and Bernie Turner.
They will always be a part of the Walden community.