Sunday, May 10, 2015

Obituary: Toronto Star reporter Barbara Turnbull, disabled by debilitating injury, carved out superlative journalism career

From The Toronto Star. She also wrote the 2013 book, What I know: Lessons from my 30 years of quadriplegia.

Barbara Turnbull, who died May 10 at age 50, is remembered for her "strength, her bravery, the depth of her independence, her writing talent and her vibrant personality.”

Retired Toronto Star editor Nick van Rijn admits that when he first saw reporter Barb Turnbull in the newsroom, he thought: “What is she doing here?” 

Years earlier, a teenage Turnbull had been shot in the neck during a robbery, severing her spinal cord and rendering her a high-level quadriplegic.

“She wasted no time showing me what she was doing here,” van Rijn recalled Sunday. 

Despite “my accident,” as Turnbull called the 1983 shooting during a robbery in the convenience store where she worked, she graduated with honours from Arizona State University’s journalism school as class valedictorian in 1990. She was subsequently hired by the Star, where she became a champion of disability rights and organ donation over her incredible career at the newspaper. 

Former Star managing editor Mary Deanne Shears hired her in the early ’90s. “Little did I know then of her strength, her bravery, the depth of her independence, her writing talent and her vibrant personality. But the Star newsroom came to know all of that, and many of its journalists became her friend, as did I. She was smart and feisty and kind and determined to make every day and every assignment count. I shall miss her so much.”

Former Ontario Attorney General Roy McMurtry befriended Turnbull shortly after the shooting. 

“I admired Barb so much. She was without a doubt the most courageous person I had ever known,” he said.
Newsroom colleague and close friend Joe Hall said he was shocked by how quickly Turnbull made people see her as she wanted to be seen.

“The miracle of Barb was you lost the chair. A whirring, lumbering, 300-pound contraption — the legacy of a cowardly crime and catastrophic injury. Yet if you knew her, it disappeared. Gone, in the glow of a sublime spirit.”

“Barb was exceptional in the way she conducted her life,” said another former colleague, Leslie Scrivener. “She used positive language, the language of the able-bodied, so that she was not set apart. Because of that we didn't set her apart. She walked to work. She had lunch with you. The relationship was collegial, not dependent.”

Torstar board chair and former publisher John Honderich said Turnbull’s work was exemplary.
“She was a great journalist. She wrote some tremendous stories. This is someone whose name had transcended virtually everything, and so people knew the story of Barbara Turnbull. 

“And yet she was insistent, always determined to be just considered, she was a journalist doing her job, she wanted to do great stories, she wanted to do stories that mattered. She cared about the paper. In those respects she would be like any other reporter. 

“But she wasn’t. She wasn’t every other reporter and that’s what made it so special.”