Jerry Turner, a pioneer in the athletic footwear business who helped drive the industry’s explosive growth over a 60-year career, died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. Turner, 84, passed away peacefully in his sleep surrounded by family members.
Turner was both a leading business executive and transformative product innovator in the footwear business, stretching back to the days when athletic shoes were far more rudimentary and less common than today. As President of Brooks Athletic Shoe Company (also known as Brooks Running Shoes) in the 1960s and 1970s, Turner helped build the company into a household name, rising to one of America’s top three selling brands. In 1977, the Brooks Vantage was ranked #1 in the annual Runner’s World running guide.
Turner was credited with inventing the stability running shoe category, and in one of the field’s most significant breakthroughs in 1975 he introduced the first shoe to use EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate), an air-infused foam that replaced rubber and became a mainstay of running shoes throughout the industry. He followed up in 1977 with the introduction of the varus wedge, which helped runners who overpronated—a technology that is still popular today.
Following his tenure at Brooks, Turner founded American Sporting Goods Corporation, which developed the Turntec brand of running shoes and the Nevados line of hiking shoes. Over time, the company acquired the Avia, And1 and Ryka brands. In 2011, Turner sold the company to Brown Shoe Company, known now as Caleres. A diligent and industrious worker accustomed to 70-hour workweeks, Turner emerged from retirement in 2017 to launch Turner Footwear, a performance footwear company with the tagline “Legends Evolve.”
Though not a runner himself, Turner said he was a keen listener who understood what athletes needed and was willing to experiment and borrow from other industries to invent new solutions. In a story well-known in the field, in 1974 Turner had a conversation with famed distance runner Marty Liquori in which Liquori requested a better midsole material than the rubber used in running shoes at that time. Turner turned to a chemical engineer at the Monarch Rubber Company in Baltimore, who helped develop EVA as a lighter, waterproof and durable alternative. EVA was introduced the next year in the Brooks Villanova, named for Liquori’s alma mater.
Turner was born in Omaha, NE, on May 10, 1935, the oldest child of Nathan and Ruth Turner and the brother of Kaye Ann Turner and Judith Myra Turner. He graduated from Omaha’s Central High School in 1953 and headed east to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated in 1957 with a degree in finance.
A member of ROTC while in college, Turner served in the U.S. Army for two years at Fort Lee, VA. He earned an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley in 1960, and then moved to the East Coast to launch his distinguished athletic footwear career. Turner was credited with numerous honors, including induction into the Sporting Goods Hall of Fame in 2004 and Omaha’s Central High School Hall of Fame in 2014.
Turner was deeply committed to his family. He is survived by his wife, Margaret Oung, his former wife Jo-Ellen Turner, and three children: Suzanne Turner (David Schulman) of Washington, D.C., K. Robert Turner (Lauren Turner) of Los Angeles, CA, and Jonathan Turner (Anne Turner) of Charleston, SC, as well as step daughter Camille King (Terry) of Newport Coast, CA. He had six grandchildren, Kyra and Jenna Schulman, Devon and Will Turner, and Ryan and Ben Turner, and step-grandchild Adrienne King. He is also survived by his sister Kaye Turner of New York and brother-in-law Dr. Charles Ginsburg of Dallas, as well as a niece and nephew.
Turner remained dedicated to his alma maters and endowed an annual scholarship to be awarded to an Omaha Central High School graduate to attend the University of Pennsylvania. In lieu of flowers, donations can made to the Central High School Foundation (http://www.chsfomaha.org/).