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Ted Turner, swaggering billionaire humbled by ‘Lone Sailor’ prize for long-ago Coast Guard stint

Ted Turner: You know him as a trailblazing cable TV pioneer, baseball mogul, world-class competitive sailor, signer of multimillion-dollar charitable checks, squire of beautiful and accomplished women. And in Washington this week, he was honored for a blip on his CV so unheralded he almost seemed sheepish about it.

“When I joined the Coast Guard 50 years ago,” the CNN and TBS founder mused as he accepted the U.S. Navy Memorial’s Lone Sailor Award Wednesday night at the National Building Museum, “I never imagined I’d come out with something like this.”

Turner, center, receives his honor from Navy Memorial President and retired Vice Adm. John Totushek, left, and Coast Guard Vice Commandant John P. Currier.
Turner, center, receives his honor from Navy Memorial President and retired Vice Adm. John Totushek, left, and Coast Guard Vice Commandant John P. Currier. (Jeff Malet Photography)

Turner’s service, which barely rates a mention in many bios, came amid less than glorious circumstances, after all — when he got suspended from Brown. (“Ted chose to take a break,” the narrator in his video tribute diplomatically proclaimed, though Turner has acknowledged differences with university deans about drinking and bringing girls back to his room.)

“It was back in the days of the draft,” he told us when we sidled up to him at the dinner. Cut loose from college, he needed to get his service out of the way, he said, “and I liked boats.” Turner said the Coast Guard deployed him to some pretty sweet places — Charleston, Fort Lauderdale — and he ended up doing eight years as a reservist. Beyond that, the normally swaggering billionaire seemed reluctant to reminisce.

Buck up, Ted — you’re in good company! One of the more quietly subversive honors galas in town, the Lone Sailor Awards only occasionally pays tribute to great military heroes, such as former Marine Commandant P.X. Kelley, also honored Wednesday. Instead, it typically spotlights men (and the occasional woman) who gritted out brief obligatory stints as lowly swabbies or junior officers — before moving on to grander careers in other fields. In recent years, the award has gone to such disparate I-didn’t-know-they-served VIPs as Bill Cosby, Beau Bridges, Arnold Palmer and FedEx founder Fred Smith, waxing nostalgic about how their brief time in uniform molded them. (Wednesday’s other honorees were  General Motors CEO Dan Akerson and former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison — not a sailor but recognized for her military advocacy.)

Sally Ranney with Ted Turner. (Jeff Malet Photography)
Sally Ranney with Ted Turner. (Jeff Malet Photography)

On a night muted somewhat by the Navy Yard shootings, most of the honorees kept their speeches short. Turner gave over most of his time at the dais to reciting passages from poems that he said illustrated the Coast Guard credo of “honor, courage, commitment.”

First, a passage from Shakespeare’s Richard II: Mine honor is my life; both grow in one / Take honor from me, and my life is done. And a longer passage from Macaulay’s epic “Horatius at the Bridge”: In yon strait path a thousand / May well be stopped by three / Now who will stand on either hand / And keep the bridge with me?

Turner, of course, gave much longer excerpts than we’ve given you here — and was the erstwhile classics major speaking without notes? Oh yes, said his girlfriend, environmental advocate Sally Ranney. “Ted has those entire poems memorized.”

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Amy Argetsinger · September 19, 2013

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