Some approached the open casket in tears or hugging each other. Others knelt in respect and meditation and then kissed Hattie Turner’s forehead. A man patted her hand in farewell; a woman rearranged one of her white satin garments as if to tuck her in.
Those reverential gestures of love and remembrance unfolded at Turner’s flower-draped white casket in the standing-room-only sanctuary of the Bethel A.M.E. Church on Goffe Street on Friday morning.
Nearly 300 people gathered to celebrate a redoubtable New Havener whose work as a mentor, teacher, spiritual counselor, and pioneering social worker touched countless lives.
Turner died on May 18 at the age of 89 at her granddaughter Kebra Bolden’s home, where she had been living since suffering a stroke a year ago.
“She fed people, clothed people. She gave them opportunities, whatever you needed, and she was an awesome grandmother. People to this day tell me how much my grandmother changed their lives,” said Bolden, one of many grandchildren, relatives, friends, and admirers celebrating Turner’s charisma and powerful can-do style.
Turner was fond of aphorisms for their wisdom, and some of her favorites decorated the funeral program including: “The biggest room in life is the room for improvement.”
Speakers and program notes recalled Turner’s work with the New Haven Redevelopment Agency in the late 1960s, followed by a stint as a social worker in the child abuse program at Yale-New Haven Hospital.
Perhaps her biggest public role came after she was recruited into the New Haven police department where as a civilian employee she was a “juvenile screener.” Turner worked with kids who in that era were known as potential “juvenile delinquents” to determine who needed social work interventions rather than incarceration.
New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman, who worked with Turner 22 years ago in his first tour with the department, said, “Police chiefs come and go. Hattie Turner stayed the course.”
The Rev. Orsella Cooper Hughes, who officiated at the song-filled service, said, “Hattie loved church. We’re here to celebrate [not mourn]. Choir, don’t sing it sad, sing it happy.”
Click on the play arrow to hear a sample of one of the many hymns of praise and faith that animated the “going home services” for Hattie Turner.