Kathryn Turman is a wonderful conversationalist. Given her long and laudable career in public service, citing that attribute is a testimony to the Tyler native’s gracious personality and captivating storytelling, not to mention refreshing in this era of texting and tweeting.
Speaking from her new home just outside Nashville in the hills of Tennessee, Turman puts you on the front lines of history by recounting her role in helping the families of victims of tragedies like the Pan-Am Flight 103 that was sabotaged and crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 and the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Assisting the families was a large part of her job capacity, first with the Justice Department and then the FBI.
Turman retired from the FBI at the end of June and shared her experiences during the course of two long and interesting conversations. She revealed her call to public service and shared memories of growing up in Tyler.
A 1972 graduate of Robert E. Lee High School, Turman recalled attending movies at the three downtown theaters of that time: the Tyler, Liberty and Arcadia. She also mentioned the Christmas parade and shopping at Mayer & Schmidt department store downtown, “Mayer & Schmidt had those tubes that the clerks used to put your cash or checks into and then they were zipped upstairs,” Turman said. “And it was a big deal to eat at Tiki Burger or the new Pizza Hut on Fifth Street. And most of all, I remember trips to my grandparents’ farm at Noonday. Now that was a treat.”
From Tyler, she moved to Austin and earned a degree in sociology from the University of Texas in 1976. “I just remember saying to myself that I wanted my life to be more than just long,” Turman said. “I wanted to make a contribution.”
After graduation, Turman moved to Dallas and pursued a career in business before deciding to make a change, “My time in Dallas was kind of spent finding myself, if you will,” Turman said.
Turman was able to make the move from Big D to Washington, DC, and work for the late John Heinz, a Senator from Pennsylvania who died in a plane crash in 1991. “Public service was always appealing to me and through the help of Congressman Jim Collins of Dallas, I was able to get a job with Senator Heinz and move to Washington,” Turman said. “Working for Senator Heinz was very rewarding because he was kind of a role model for me.”
Heinz was known for his compassionate work with the nation’s growing elderly population and noted for being instrumental in pushing through legislation that put the Social Security system on sounder financial footing. He also played a major role in strengthening laws regulating retirement policies, pension plans, health insurance and nursing homes.
After Senator Heinz’s untimely death, Turman was forced to make a move that ultimately would put her on a career path that culminated with her becoming the architect for the victims assistance program with the FBI. She joined the staff at the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia where she met a prosecutor named Robert Mueller, who later headed the FBI.
Before she moved to the FBI, Turman became the director of the Office for Victims of Crimes (OVC) with the justice department and crossed paths with Mueller in 2000 when the two were involved with an eight-month trial in The Netherlands for the Pan Am 103 flight that crashed in Scotland on December 21, 1988. Turman and her group were charged with providing assistance for the families of the 270 victims, from the USA and 20 different countries, during the prolonged trial. That assistance involved travel arrangements and closed circuit television availability to those remaining at home, which at the time was unprecedented. Two Libyan intelligence officers were tried: one convicted, one found “not proven” under Scottish law. The case remains open even today and regrettably was a harbinger of things to come.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Turman was approached by Mueller to start a victims’ assistance division of the FBI. She agreed to accept the job with one humorous caveat, a good parking spot in the nation’s capital. “I know it sounds funny, but getting a place to park in DC is a big deal,” Turman said.
Turman assumed her role as the assistant director of the FBI’s Victim Services Division in January of 2002 and held it until her retirement at the end of June in 2020. She had prepared for this important job after more than a decade in a similar role with the Justice Department. Mueller cited Turman’s high level of commitment and competence when he asked her to join the FBI. “The victim assistance plan she developed for the Lockerbie prosecution became the backbone of the FBI’s approach to supporting victims of terrorism and federal crime,” Mueller said.
Turman explained her division’s role at the FBI.
“People have different time frames when they recover or cope with these things,” she said. “But it’s the immediate aftermath, if you do it well, that helps people on the road to coping and kind of adjusting to life afterwards.”
Such horrific events as 9/11 have been such a part of the historical landscape of America this century. Just consider the subsequent terrorism or mass shootings she and her group with the FBI have encountered since 2001. There was the bombing at the Boston marathon and then the shootings at the Orlando nightclub and the Las Vegas concert, just to name a few. “It is always difficult and part of the reason for my retirement was that at some point you are just spent,” Turman said. “But through our work, we have seen people overcome their hardships and your faith in people is restored.”
When Turman announced her retirement plans, Mueller was effusive with his praise of her character, compassion and body of work. “Kathryn is compassionate in the fullest sense of the word,” Mueller said. “She doesn’t observe the suffering of others; she enters into it. She has borne witness to the unimaginable pain of countless victims.”
As a native of Tyler and a UT graduate, Turman remembers tragic events and their effect on the American psyche as far back as the Charles Whitman shootings from the tower on the Austin campus in 1966. But she also remembers the uplifting memorable moments like the first walk on the moon in 1969. “We all remember where we were that July night,” Turman said. “It was the summer after my 9th grade in school so I was at a friend’s house watching and then never looked at the moon in the same way again.”
Turman recounted a funny story relating to the moon walk. “I remember meeting the late Dick Bass of Dallas and he was quite gregarious and well-traveled,” she said. “He was an avid mountain climber and flying somewhere to connect on a flight to go and climb Mount Kilimanjaro again. He kept regaling the guy seated next to him with tales of his adventures and finally, just as they landed, apologized and asked the man his name. It was Neal Armstrong!”
Turman also recalled the late Walter Cronkite sharing his memory of covering the New London school disaster of 1937, when 295 children and teachers perished in Rusk County. “He told me he never got over that assignment. It was something he said he could never erase from his mind.”
Of her own childhood memories in Tyler, Turman enjoyed recounting a simpler time and place. She still visits her mother in Tyler while her two brothers Steve and Keith now live in Iowa and Dallas, respectively.
“I’m looking forward to my retirement and working in the garden,” Turman said. “And I am proud of what we were able to do to help people through our division of the FBI.” The current director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, cited novelist Ray Bradbury when commenting on Turman’s retirement. Bradbury wrote this: “It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it to something that is like you when you take your hands away.”
Turman, with her tireless dedication to helping others, did just that.