CINCINNATI – He was always smiling, Derrick Turnbow’s mother said, and that’s how she wanted to remember him.
Smiling at the worst moments and the best.
Smiling days after the 16-year-old Taft High honor student was hit by a bullet fired at someone else during a street fight.
Smiling after he was paralyzed from the neck down and only able to breathe out of a ventilator tube.
Smiling when President George H.W. Bush, entertainer Gregory Hines and friends and strangers from all quarters visited him through 20 months of rehabilitation at Drake Hospital, where he spent the rest of his life.
Smiling though his proudest moment – graduating with the Class of '91 in a stirring ceremony at Music Hall, with "Pomp and Circumstance" playing and cheers and tears of love and admiration from the crowd gently raining down on him as he went down the aisle in his wheelchair.
Wearing his green cap and gown, Derrick Turnbow could hardly believe he had made it. He was speaking freely by then and no longer totally dependent on his portable respirator.
“There have been a lot of times, really, I didn’t think the day would come,” he said excitedly moments before the ceremony, “but I’m walking down the aisle. Wooooo.”
"Wooooo" was right.
A quarter century before Lauren Hill, Derrick Turnbow was the teen embodiment of courage, hope, inspiration, determination and – sadly – tragedy.
With bright eyes and a wide, toothy smile, the 16-year-old Taft High School honor student could have been embarking on a journey to the stars until the afternoon of Feb. 20, 1990 when fate took him across the street from the school, to the wrong place at the wrong time.
There was a fight going on and a crowd of students had gathered to watch. Afterward, a student said one of the fighters pulled out a gun and fired at the other. At the same moment, the intended victim pulled Derrick in front of him.
Derrick was shot in the face and neck and rushed to a hospital in critical condition.
Derrick’s life and legend could have ended there – just another victim of street violence. But through some power of the human spirit that many of us don’t have or can’t understand, he carried on – through months of pain and suffering, through rehab – vowing to finish high school, go to college and study sociology.
He wanted to live and he was going to make the best of it.
“The last time I had the opportunity to visit Derrick, one of the last things he said was, ‘I have to keep busy. I have to keep my mind busy. I have to keep my mind working,'" one of Derrick’s mentors recalled on the day Derrick died. "And that stuck with me. Even though he was in the hospital, he didn’t want his mind to become idle. He was working on college courses and that’s really amazing.”
After the shooting, Derrick’s story and his will to live quickly captured the hearts of the Tri-State and beyond. WIZ Radio (WIZF) led a campaign that raised more than $200,000 for Derrick’s medical expenses.
“Every time I saw Derrick, he was smiling as if to say, ‘It’s all right,’” said Edna Howell, news director for WIZF.
One of Derrick’s teachers spent hours at his bedside. Pamela Fields suffered two bouts with lupus – the second while Derrick was in Drake – and she said he would mouth an encouraging message to her every day.
“I don’t think I would have pulled through my illness without his help,” Fields said.
At some point, without Twitter or Facebook, President Bush heard of Derrick, and on a presidential visit here two months after the shooting, Bush ordered his motorcade to drive him from Downtown up I-75 to visit.
Bush spent 15 minutes in private with Derrick and offered gentle and kind words of encouragement, according to Drake VP Judy Van Ginkel.
"Derrick was obviously pleased by this," Van Ginkel said. She said Derrick responded by blinking and smiling.
Derrick was unable to speak at that point, so Bush did all the talking.
"He expressed his pride in Derrick. He gave him encouragement and said he hoped (Derrick) didn't give up hope because he knew this is very difficult for Derrick," Van Ginkel said.
Bush even talked about the men’s NCAA basketball championship game the night before, when UNLV pummeled Duke 103-73.
Derrick’s mother Mattie and his family stayed steadfastly by his side through the ordeal. As much as she had to hurt for her son, she kept optimistic. By the time he graduated from Taft, she was eager to watch him take on the world.
“I‘m very proud. I can’t find the words to describe how proud I am,” she said after the ceremony. “Like they said in there, this is not the end, this is just the beginning. We’re going to continue on whatever he wants to do.”
But four months later, Derrick had a sudden, irregular heartbeat and a drop in blood pressure during routine morning care at Drake, a hospital spokesperson said. The emergency team could not save him. He died on Oct. 20, 1991. He was 18.
At the funeral, the pastor said Derrick was a beacon of hope and he and others called for a new day when teens wouldn’t shoot each other on the street.
Mayor David Mann said he hoped that would be Derrick’s legacy and the city would have failed him if more young and promising lives were cut short in the same way.
“Derrick Turnbow was an inspiration to all of us,” Mann said, “one who came to symbolize both incredible courage and the senselessness of violence and drugs in our community.”
A former Taft student, 17-year-old Edwin Swan, was charged with shooting Derrick. In 1990, he was convicted of felonious assault and attempted murder. After Derrick died, Swan went on trial for murder. His first trial in June 2002 ended in a hung jury. He was retried four months later, convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life.
Swan is still in prison.
On Jan. 2, 2002, Mann and others came to the street where Derrick lived - Armory Street in the West End - and held a small ceremony on the corner. Standing under the street sign, Mann pulled a rope to unfurl a curtain and unveil a new sign proclaiming Derrick Turnbow Avenue.
Derrick’s mother was thrilled and said he would have liked that.
“He would be delighted. I could just see him with that smile just beaming: ‘I’m somebody. I left a good memory, a monument of myself,’” she said.
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