GAMBIER -- In 2012, Knox County in general and Kenyon College in specific lost a major personality. That's when Daniel J. Turner passed away after a battle with cancer.
He was well-known in the community as a theater director, leading many shows over the years with the Mount Vernon Players. At Kenyon he was known for his theatrical work, but he was also known for having returned to college to finish his theater degree as an adult and — most familiarly — as a security guard.
I had the pleasure of meeting and working with Dan during the years that I lived in Knox County, working at the Mount Vernon News.
Having a background in theater myself, I suppose it was inevitable that I would get involved with some productions in Mount Vernon, and I did by helping writer Mike Petee realize some ideas that he had for stage shows inspired by historical subjects, such as With Pen in Hand, his show about Dan Emmett, and Gotta Leave 'Em Laughing, which portrayed 19th century humorists such as Mark Twain, Petroleum V. Nasby, and Knox County's own Dan De Quille.
I had met Dan in the process of covering productions for the newspaper, but Gotta Leave 'Em Laughing was my first chance to work with him directly as he portrayed a small part in the play while I directed.
His lively blend of humor, warmth, and a certain curmudgeonly brusqueness made him a beloved figure. As he pointed out to me, it was good for him to act periodically since it reminded him what he put actors through as a director.
It turned out that we shared some of the same style: At one rehearsal, I lit into some actors who were talking backstage. After I scolded them tartly, Turner leaned over to me and whispered, “If you hadn't, I was going to in about five seconds!”
As the days darken in the depths of fall, I find my thoughts drifting back to another specialty of Turner's: Ghosts. Turner was famous for the ghost tours he gave over the years at Kenyon College, long reputed to be one of the most haunted places in Ohio.
Though many have served in that function at Kenyon over the years, Turner was the one whom I had the chance to experience. I am glad, in retrospect, that in my three years of living in Knox County that I took advantage of the opportunity to attend Turner's ghost tour four times. If I'd known we'd lose him so soon, I would have gone more.
In his job as a third shift safety officer, Turner had been in an ideal spot to experience Kenyon's famous hauntings. On his ghost tours he would talk about those experiences, but what I really appreciated was that, despite Turner's theatrical background, there was no attempt to ham it up.
He told his stories simply, straightforwardly, and consistently, and they were believable because of it.
The tours I attended started at the pillars which serve as a gateway to the southern part of campus, which was his regular patrol grounds at the time. He would mention some of the legends associated with the pillars, including their traditional nickname as “The Gates of Hell,” though he would laughingly say that he figured that name was probably first given by a student on his way to a final exam.
The tour would then proceed to the Church of the Holy Spirit, where Turner would ascend the pulpit and give an overview of the history and hauntings of Kenyon College, including the night in 1995 that he and other guards spent a period of time chasing screaming phone calls accompanied by lights, showers, and an elevator, all operating themselves, in Caples Residence.
On one tour that I arranged with a handful of friends, Turner had just begun talking about the church itself and how reports had filtered in over the years of Kenyon's founder, Bishop Philander Chase, being seen in the organ loft. At precisely that moment, the lights in the church started to slowly dim.
They went out so slowly, that we all had time to discuss it. Startled, Turner broke off and looked around to see if someone was messing with the lights. He then pointed at the rheostat on the wall behind us which controlled the lights. A few of us were able to turn around quickly enough to spot the rheostat and see that it was slowly dialing down the lights, although nothing was touching it.
Addled, Turner nearly tripped and fell in the darkness as he was climbing down from the pulpit to go turn the lights back on. It was only then that he remembered he had a flashlight with him. He said he'd never had the lights turned out on him on one of the tours.
After that, the group would walk south, passing Peirce Hall and hearing a few stories, such as the time Turner was checking the hall at night and a rubber ball came bouncing down the stairs of the tower. He called for backup and they checked the tower thoroughly, but no one was there.
The tower was known to have been the site where a student committed suicide in the 1970s.
Then the tour proceeded to the Bolton Dance Studio. Once an indoor pool for Kenyon's highly successful swim team, the old pool was covered with a wooden floor after a larger pool was built elsewhere on campus. But the hauntings associated with the building seem to have their roots in its days as a pool.
The most famous story is that supposedly a student or Army Air Force cadet in the 1940s bounced too high, hit the glass ceiling, broke his neck, and died. Spooky story, but one that has never been documented anywhere on paper.
Hearing that the most famous haunting story was most likely apocryphal, I was disappointed and initially underwhelmed by the famously haunted building.
Every subsequent time I took Turner's tour, I initially felt that the building seemed pretty innocuous. Interestingly, though, every single time I went on these tours — and no matter which stories Turner told — by the time I'd spent 15 minutes in that building, my skin was crawling, my breath became strained, and I would always find myself saying at some point, “If this isn't his last story, I'm going to have to go ahead and step outside.”
Turner did not have a down-pat script of stories. He had a large repertory of tales, and would sometimes let the questions of attendees determine what stories came out. Bolton tales included the sounds of lockers, diving board bounces, and pool splashes, none of which should be possible in the current structure.
The one story always told in Bolton was of the night Turner was crossing the floor of the dance studio itself, and heard the sound of a wet footstep behind him. He turned, and in the light of his flashlight saw that the perfectly dry wooden floor he had just walked over was now covered with a shiny film of water.
In the middle of the puddle was the outline of one human footprint. As Turner watched it in disbelief, the back of the print filled in, as if the foot were starting to step forward. Then the front part disappeared, as if the invisible owner of the footprint had stepped forward toward Turner.
That was enough for Turner, and by his own admission, he ran to the side door and outside, where with shaking hands he lit up a cigarette and promptly forgot all standard radio protocol and shouted into his walkie-talkie for the other guards to “get the hell down here!”
Turner kept chain smoking until his boss and another guard came screeching into the access drive next to the studio. Turner said that his boss tried to calm him down by saying he'd go back in there with him just to make sure nothing was going on. The two entered through the side door.
In the light of two flashlights, both men could see a large puddle of water, just where Turner had said it was. As they watched, the puddle began shrinking, drying up and disappearing in just a few seconds.
Both men ran out of the studio and chain smoked after that.
The tour ended with a visit to Old Kenyon, the massive stone building at the south end of campus which was built in the 1820s and was the first official building of the college. The building was home to Stuart Lathrop Pierson, the Kenyon student killed in a hazing stunt gone awry in 1905.
Turner himself had seen a candle shining in the window of Pierson's room during a time of the year when no students were in the building. Upon returning to check out the room, he found no candle nor any smell to suggest that a candle had just been there.
Even more distressing though, are the hauntings associated with the fire that devastated Old Kenyon in 1949. That tragic event saw the death of nine students, but according to Turner, echoes of those events lingered.
He said that he couldn't even begin to recall how many times security had received calls from frightened student awakened by someone pounding on their door and shouting about a fire. Others were woken up directly in their beds. Perhaps the eeriest of all was the panicked call Turner received one summer night from a group of terrified high school students on campus for a summer program.
After rushing to the building and calming the students down enough to get a coherent response, Turner found that the students had been startled and horrified to look up and see the legs of people walking coming down through the ceiling of the hall. The startling detail made sense when it was remembered that when Old Kenyon was rebuilt after the fire, the upper floors no longer aligned with the original level.
By this point, Turner's voice would be going from telling all the stories, and he'd wrap it up by answering any questions the group had as we walked back toward our cars downtown. Four times I took the tour, and walked away each time impressed by Turner's integrity and plain-spoken storytelling. I remember the last thing he said on one of those tours. “When I go, I'd better not end up another one of these damn ghosts on this hill.”
I haven't heard any reports of Turner sightings, so far.
But maybe he'll call in on the walkie-talkie some quiet night.