From behind the counters in the cafeteria of Bunnell High School, Norma Keith Durrance Turner served lunch to essentially every child in Flagler County for two decades. For someone remembered as synonymous with food and family, it is fitting that Turner died at an hour when many kitchens were bustling and tables were being set — on the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day. She died Nov. 22, at the age of 95.
Until then, she was the oldest Bunnell native living in Flagler County, and likely its greatest first-hand source of knowledge about local history. In fact, when she was born, on Dec. 17, 1916, there was no Flagler County — Bunnell was part of St. Johns County until the following year when Flagler was formed. Her family, the Durrance family, was among the county’s pioneers, and Norma was there behind the counter, feeding the second and third generations of Flagler residents.
“She fed me in high school, and she was still there and she fed my daughter in school,” recalled Patsy Durrance, who inherited the name by marrying Norma’s youngest brother, Tommy. “She fed most every family in the county, some way or other.”
‘We grew up with Norma’
She was born on what is now Bulldog Drive. Her mother was Irene Mathilda “Nunny” Jeppson Durrance, and her father was Omega Durrance.
When Norma Durrance was in high school, she played basketball and was the valedictorian out of 10 students in the class of 1934. She was then appointed principal of a nursery school and, a year later, she married Charles Rodgers Turner. They had one child, a son named Charles Henry, who eventually became a trumpet player for Frank Sinatra.
Patsy Durrance was in high school in 1945 when Turner began working at the cafeteria, which served all grade levels.
“If they were running late (preparing food in the cafeteria), she would ask if some of the kids would come down and help for a period,” she recalled. “They would just take them out of class. We liked it because we could always eat something. We buttered bread, is what we did.”
Jamie Likins, whose 89-year-old mother, Elizabeth Dawson, is now the oldest Bunnell native still residing in the county, said that at class reunions, “We always reminisce about her cooking. … Everyone can tell you what their favorite dish was.” There was Hungarian goulash, hamburger gravy over mashed potatoes and other dishes, but she was most famous for being the best yeast roll maker in the area.
Football players would stop by the cafeteria complaining they were hungry, Likins said, so Turner would give them buttered rolls with sugar “to tide them over until lunch time.”
“Everybody just loved her,” said Likins, who was also her second cousin. “We grew up with Norma.”
Most people who grew up in the 1940s to 1960s in Flagler County can say the same thing, including Elbert Tucker, who was served lunch by Norma Turner every day from first grade through 12th grade.
“She was a wonderful person,” said Tucker, now 65 and a Bunnell city commissioner. “She was an organizer. She ran the school cafeteria (and) she helped people not associated with the lunchroom. … Everybody was poor in Flagler County, except for a few big business owners. She told me on more than one occasion that the coaches would come to her and ask if this boy could do anything for a few pennies. She would have one person move cans from one place to another, then hire someone else to move them back in the afternoon. She wanted them to feel like they were contributing.”
Tucker also recalled one example of Turner’s sense of fun. When he was in school (in a graduating class of 32 students), he picked up his napkin one day and unrolled it to find the familiar knife and fork, but instead of a teaspoon, he found a large tablespoon. Puzzled, he walked up to Turner behind the counter.
“I got the wrong spoon,” he told her.
“Oh, you got it today,” she said. It turned out that she put one large spoon in a napkin at random every day just to see who would get it “as a curiosity,” Tucker said.
These children grew up eating home-cooked meals at the cafeteria: Everything was made from scratch.
“All of us who went to school there had really fond memories of food at school,” said Gloria Deen, a member of the Flagler County Historical Society. Turner cooked a pork-and-rice dish called pilau, which all the kids pronounced — and still pronounce — purr-lo.
“She made cinnamon rolls, too,” Deen said. “You can imagine homemade cinnamon rolls. It smelled so good when you went into the kitchen. It was special.”
Elbert Tucker’s wife, Pam, was in the second grade when Turner retired. “But I can remember, that’s one of my childhood memories, is smelling those rolls all across the campus,” she said.
After retiring, Turner moved to Las Vegas to be with her son. A few years later, Pam Tucker said, “the old high school burned down, and they transferred us out. I don’t know if the recipe burned up or not, but I don’t recall ever smelling those rolls anymore. By then, she was gone.”
It was as if when she left Flagler County, no one could make the rolls the way she could, and something would never be the same as it was in the old days.
“Increasingly, people don’t cook anymore,” Deen said. “You go to a potluck and everything has a Publix label on it. … (The rolls) are not hard to make, but people are afraid of them; you have to let them rise, and you punch (the dough) down and let it rise again.” But the result of the hard work is worth it: It’s Southern comfort food, she said. “It’s warm and comforting. It makes you feel secure.”
‘It came from the school’
In 1985, Turner returned from Las Vegas. And Flagler County was once again served yeast rolls. She got up early in the morning to make rolls and delivered them to friends and family.
She also helped with family history, passing on stories from her childhood. She was active with the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Flagler County Historical Society. To thank her for years of helping to prepare food at Cracker Day, the 2006 event was dedicated in part to her (along with Craig Barton).
But, in 2002, when her husband died, Norma Turner’s health started to decline. After a knee injury, she stayed with the Tuckers for a time. She went to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the building across from what is now Bunnell Elementary School, decades after having hosted the church meetings with her husband in their own home. She would smile and watch the little children in the church hallways from her wheelchair.
But eventually, she had to quit making rolls. Patsy Durrance said: “She made them for years and years, and just gave them to people in the community. When she was sick a couple of weeks ago, I was there, and I said, ‘You’ve got to get well, because you’ve got to make me some rolls.’”
Durrance said she can’t make rolls like Turner did. “She had a knack with it,” she said. “She just had that touch to know when they were ready to put in the pan to rise, and when to bake them.”
Pam Tucker agreed. “She tried to teach a couple of us, but we couldn’t make them the way she did,” she said.
One person who is particularly interested in passing on the secrets of the rolls is Joyce Wallace. Also a Durrance, Wallace worked with Turner in the cafeteria for four years in the early 1960s until Turner retired, and then Wallace worked there another four years. She said the recipe wasn’t actually Turner’s to begin with.
“It came from the school,” Wallace said, as she searched through her cookbooks to try to find a copy. She said Turner adopted the recipe, and when she left, Wallace continued baking them.
“We made hundreds and hundreds of them,” she said. “I’m talking about big trays, not little trays. We made two rolls per person. I bet we made 2,000 rolls per day. It was a big thing at that time, you know?”
Then, Wallace said, “Got it.” She found the recipe in her book. It was hand-written on Nov. 25, 1985, by Pearl Durrance Woods, copied from Norma Turner’s recipe. The date was a Monday, three days before Thanksgiving the year Turner returned to Flagler County from Las Vegas, and so Woods was likely getting the instructions in preparation for a big meal.
Turner’s funeral service will be Friday (see the box on this page). Following the service and the grave dedication, there will be a potluck meal at the church, and Wallace said she’s going to bring copies of the recipe to share. It has also been reproduced, word for word, on a second box on this page. Perhaps, at the church across the street from the site of the old Bunnell school where Turner spent so many days baking, the smells of fresh bread and butter, and possibly a hint of sugar, will once again fill the air. But, of course — and you can ask anybody there — they won’t taste quite like Norma’s rolls.
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