Walter Turner edges his 1989 Rolls Royce down a residential street in his Hunters Point neighborhood. It’s a white Silver Spur with a vinyl top the color of peanut butter and Turner’s just had it detailed earlier in the day.
“I think that might be it there,” the 74-year-old community activist says in a smooth low baritone, after checking his texts for an address. Then he sees 17-year-old Kyeante Jones — the young man he’s looking for.
Kyeante is hard to miss. He’s wearing a white suit with white satin pinstripes, turquoise dress shoes and a matching shirt and boutonniere. Turner is dressed up too, in a black tuxedo and handsome black cap. Because tonight, he’s once again transformed himself into a chauffeur.
A single caring teacher can make a huge difference in the life of a high school student. But adults outside of school can have big impacts, too. And if it takes a village to raise a child, then Turner is one important villager. He spends a ton of time giving back to the Bayview Hunters Point community where he grew up.
And prom season is always busy for him.
Kyeante will soon be graduating from George Washington High School, and there’s a crowd gathered outside his house to see him off to his senior prom. Among them is Jeremy Tom, who goes by JT. JT and Turner go way back working with neighborhood youth, most recently at the summer camp that JT helps runs for the nonprofit Hunters Point Family.
“This is you all day long,” JT says as he admires the gleaming Silver Spur. “You probably washed it twice today.”
“Oh yeah,” Turner laughs. “We got it all fixed up.”
Turner has “always had one of the smoothest cars in the neighborhood,” he says, before snapping pictures of the well-dressed pair in front of the Rolls. Kyeante’s beaming mom also gets into the action with her camera.
Kyeante worked with JT and Turner at the neighborhood day camp last summer. It was his first job. And it was JT who sent Kyeante Turner’s way for the high-end ride to prom. After lots of photos and goodbyes, Turner and Kyeante take off for some pre-prom dining.
Kyeante is headed this fall to Cal State Sacramento, where he plans to study business. He admires the interior of Turner’s classic Rolls with delight. He’s going solo to his prom, he explains, because most of the girls at his school have boyfriends. But some friends plan to meet up with him for a quick bite at a cheese steak joint Turner picked out.
On the phone, Kyeante tells one of them he’ll relay the address when he knows it because, he casually explains, “my chauffeur is driving me there.” There’s a long pause before he proudly responds that, yes, he does indeed have a driver.
When Kyeante makes a move for the door handle at the restaurant, Turner stops him. Because that’s what chauffeurs do.
“No don’t touch the door, man, Don’t touch the door,” Turner says. “I got it.”
“I do it,” he explains after Kyeante’s out of earshot, “because I want them to know that this is what they deserve. They worked for it and that’s what they should get...If they would have had a bunch of money and rented a limo, all that comes with the limo. So why don’t it come with my services?”
At the Hyatt Regency, Kyeante steps out of the car.
“I’m so ready,” he says, “to have a fun time.”
So who is tonight’s chauffeur, Walter Turner?
For decades, his whole identity was built on being an entertainer. He helped create the R&B duo Robert Winters And Fall. Their big hit was Magic Man. He was Fall — longtime studio musician, manager and backup man. His partner, Robert, was a lifelong friend. He was wheelchair-bound from polio he contracted at age 5, Turner says, just a year before the vaccine was developed.
“But his legs didn’t stop him,” Turner says with deep affection. “Me and him went everywhere, we did everything. We fell off stages together and laid there and laughed . . . He was the greatest singer in the world. I’m telling you.”
“Magic Man” is even tattooed on Turner’s neck, a memento he acquired four years ago to remember the good times, when the duo sold 122,000 copies of their hit song in New York City alone.
But Winters died in 1989, and Turner settled back into his Hunters Point neighborhood to grow his family. He’s got 11 kids and 23 grandkids. He also became a homegrown philanthropist.
He named his organization Parents Who Care. His goal was to provide for young people who needed resources and the guiding presence of a father figure. I was raised without a dad,” Turner explains. “He left when I was five. It’s just a thing that, like, I know what I was put here for and it was like for these kids.”
Once, at San Francisco’s Paul Revere School, he says, “some of the kids were having problems and they didn’t know what the problems stemmed from.” Their vision, it turned out, was blurred, so Turner and a friend took the kids to Costco to get their eyes examined — and wound up buying glasses for all 11 of them.
Another time, Turner won the San Francisco 49ers “Community Quarterback Award” for his work with youth. It was 10,000 dollars. So he got a list from the schools of families that “weren’t going to have a good Christmas,” and he and his buddy Pete went shopping for presents.
Turner is also a Juvenile Justice Commissioner for San Francisco County, overseeing conditions for incarcerated kids. He still works as a music industry consultant, he says, and he’s got a day job. He also sings in two church choirs.
So what about the fancy cars? Those are a passion — and they’re tied to his dedication to youth. He got his first Rolls Royce, a Silver Shadow, in about 2001. But, it wasn’t really for him.
“I bought these for the kids over here,” he explains of his Hunters Point neighborhood, because he grew up here too. He’s been in the community for more than six decades, and “I just wanted to put them on the same playing field with all the other schools. You know, they did just as much and just as well to get out of school, to graduate.”
So Turner got the word out, telling high school principals that “if they had a kid that wasn’t able to go to prom or get a tuxedo or get a gown, to let my organization know. And so they did.”
One of his favorite memories is of driving some kids to a prom at the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, and pulling up in the Rolls Royce to join the long line of stretch limos.
“And all the heads was turning. Right?” he recalled with a chuckle. “I enjoyed doing it and I’ll do it again and again and again.”
There’s one thing about prom night, though, that all chauffeurs know: There’s a lot of waiting around. Turner has four hours to kill after he drops off Kyeante. So he heads to a soul food restaurant in Dogpatch, for spicy chicken, red beans and rice, and yams. Then he drives around, taking in some sights on Market Street, where a Michael Jackson impersonator has drawn a crowd.
Mostly, though he sits in the car outside prom. With an hour to go, he walks across the street to the 7-11 for a lottery scratcher. All losers. He’s not used to staying up this late. He’s got church in the morning.
But when the kids start streaming out. Kyeante’s grinning. It makes the whole wait worthwhile.
“It was a lot of fun. Everybody had a good time,” Keante says. “I’m tired though. That dancing got to me.”
He climbs in the car and rolls down his window for the ride home. The Rolls Royce, he says, was a big hit.
“When we came to my prom they took pictures, and when we left they taking pictures,” Keyante tells Turner. “So yeah, they gonna remember this Rolls Royce.”
Turner’s smiling broadly. But he corrects him.
“They gonna remember you graduating, and your prom that you went to,” he tells him. “That’s the big thing.”