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Rockdale mourns loss of two educators
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CONYERS - Last month, Rockdale County mourned the premature loss of two bright lights in education, Lee Gilbert Turner and Laura Barnes.

After a long up and down battle, retired Pine Street and Eastminster School music teacher Lee Turner, 63, passed away from breast cancer. A week later, RCPS Social Worker Laura Barnes, 53, died from sudden heart complications.

Laura Barnes
Though Barnes' life was cut too short, she made the very most of her time enriching the lives of others.

"Laura made the RCPS homeless education program what it is today," said RCPS Director of Community and Student Support April Fallon, "She treated families, no matter their background or current circumstances, with dignity and respect. She was careful not to enable but to empower families to solve problems so that they could once again stabilize."

Many of Barnes' colleagues and friends - there was little delineation in her world - chimed in with countless stories of her above and beyond efforts. "The basic state-required services to be provided to these students were only the beginning for her," said Heritage High School Social Worker Nancy Bogarts.

According to all accounts, Barnes lived and breathed her life's calling, even during her "downtime." She was active with Rockdale Baptist Church's involvement in the Family Promise program as well as the Phoenix Pass project. "She attended events there on the weekends and in the evenings when the rest of us were home relaxing with our families," said Bogarts. Barnes simply enlisted her family, husband Butch, son John and daughter and son-in-law Traci and Jason McBay, in these missions.

Her friends all agree Barnes was able to avoid the "burnout" sometimes inherent in her profession with faith, humor and being so well-loved by her family. "She took her responsibilities in stride and rarely complained," said Bogarts. "Even when things felt overwhelming, she was able to look at them with grace and good humor and just kept going." She was well-known for her wit and dry humor. "She made so many of us laugh - those deep belly laughs when you bend over with tears streaming out of your eyes," said Fallon. "Now we have tears of sadness and loss."

Barnes is survived by her husband of 31 years, John "Butch" Barnes; daughter and son-in-law, Traci and Jason McBay; son, John Barnes; mother, Elizabeth "Beth" Holcomb; sisters and brothers-in-law, Marcia and Jeff Pundsack, Sandra and Jerry Oglesbee; and granddaughters, Brynlee and Ellison McBay. And, the countless lives she touched through her life's endeavors.

Lee Turner
Along with her passion for music, her students and the Georgia Bulldogs, an overwhelming characteristic of Lee Gilbert Turner was strength. A good thing because as she waged a difficult battle with breast cancer, Turner's sister was murdered, her son had a pancreas transplant and his daughter was born with a genetic disorder.

One of her Eastminster students may have said it best: "Mrs. Turner reminds me of a WWE wrestler because she fought so hard against cancer."

The school held a special chapel and planted a tree in her honor on March 14. Turner's daughter-in-law, Waver Gilbert said, "We were overwhelmed with the love and compassion the school, students and their parents showed to was exactly what we needed." A treasured note that stuck out in Waver's mind was "Mrs. Turner reminds me of a flower because she bloomed so pretty and brought sunshine to all of us." Turner's son, Jake Gilbert, had been released from the hospital after kidney complications in time to attend, and Waver said they were finally able to cry for Turner.

At her well-attended funeral a few weeks before, she said they were still too numb from their loss to cry very much. That, and the event's humorous touches, Turner's ashes were carried in via a Georgia Bulldog cookie jar - her enthusiasm for the ‘Dawgs' never waned from the days she was a member of the Redcoat Band. Students from both schools far and wide came to honor their mentor.

Two former students, now songwriters in Nashville, Tenn., also spoke during the funeral at Conyers First United Methodist Church, where Turner was a long-time member.

"The compassion she exhibited for her students was overwhelming," said Julie Rogers, a fellow church member, one-time colleague and parent, "She was their friend and mentor." Turner taught all four of her children at both Pine Street and Eastminster. "I remember her teaching me to accompany her singers on the piano. She took the time to teach me this skill," said Reynolds Rogers. "That was just her, always putting others first."

Turner was very involved over the years with Conyers Kids, Character Lines and the Social Circle Theater. Waver said her family was also incredibly moved when the Social Circle Theater presented them with the piano Turner played there with a plaque, in Turner's own words, addressed to her granddaughter: "Alyssa, follow in my footsteps, and I'll lead you along the way." Apparently, the musical gene skipped a generation over her son and daughter to her grandchildren.

Turner is survived by her husband, Guy Turner, Conyers; daughter, Kerrie & Chris Deerman, Conyers; sons, Jake & Waver Gilbert, Covington, Brian Turner, Conyers; father, Marcus & Hazel Bridges; mother, Isabelle Harris; brother, Allen & Maryel Bridges; grandchildren, Allen Turner, Austin Turner, Damien Deerman, and Alyssa Lee Gilbert.