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W. Turnbull, 62; founded the Boys Choir of Harlem

March 24, 2007|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Walter Turnbull, who founded the Boys Choir of Harlem in a church basement and led the organization to international acclaim that included performances at the White House and the Vatican, has died. He was 62.

Turnbull died Friday at a New York City hospital, said his brother, Horace Turnbull. He said Turnbull had a stroke months ago.

"He was a genius of a man who managed to take his talents in bringing out song in young people who had no training," said Rep Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who helped raise funds for the choir. "To take that talent and turn into academic achievement -- it was just remarkable."

Turnbull's death marked the latest in a sad string of events for the fabled choir, which has been reeling from scandal ever since a choir counselor was accused of sexually abusing a student earlier this decade. City investigators said Turnbull failed to deal with the allegations properly.

The world-renowned institution has fallen into debt. The 50-boy choir was evicted from its home last year and now has a reduced, mostly volunteer, staff.

In 2001, a 15-year-old student told choir officials that he had been abused by a man who had directed the choir's counseling and summer camp and chaperoned trips for more than two decades.

Investigators later concluded that choir leaders did nothing to stop the crimes. The worker was arrested and convicted of sexual abuse after the boy's family went to police.

Walter Turnbull said at the time that what happened to the boy was "very unfortunate."

"We have done over the years all the things that we could to make sure that we did the best thing, the right thing," Turnbull said.

The choir, begun with 20 boys in 1968, has performed at the White House, at the United Nations and for Pope John Paul II. It has released albums and been heard on the soundtracks of movies such as "Jungle Fever," "Malcolm X" and "Glory."

Beyond its musical training, the choir provides educational and personal counseling to hundreds of inner-city young people ages 9 to 19 each year.

A native of Greenville, Miss., Turnbull intended to become an opera singer. He earned a bachelor's degree from Tougaloo College in Mississippi in 1966 and a master's from the Manhattan School of Music in 1968.

He performed as a tenor soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic and made ends meet by teaching and driving a taxi.

He never married and poured his energies into guiding the students in the choir and school.

"We try to provide an entire environment that encourages discipline, hard work and self-respect," Turnbull told The Times in 1996. "Everything in terms of their academic and artistic work is based on mutual respect and hard work. It's nothing grandiose or big. We might say, for example, 'How will you have a job, and maintain a job, without consistency?'

"We just try to get kids to understand the importance of simple things and how they grow into big things," he said, "and how those things can make the difference between their life being bearable or unbearable."

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