Advocates for the Disadvantaged

2011 Emory Medalists improve lives through law, medicine

By Maria Lameiras

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just reward: Mary Ann Oakley 70G 74L and James Turpin 49C 51T 55M have spent their careers passionately fighting for those unable to fight for themselves.

Ann Borden

Between them, the 2011 Emory Medalists have spent more than nine decades protecting the physical, emotional, and societal health of the disadvantaged, the disenfranchised, the abused, and the overlooked.

Mary Ann B. Oakley 70G 74L and James W. Turpin 49C 51T 55M were honored and celebrated for lives “passionately engaged” in the world community on October 6 at the 2011 Emory Medal ceremony on campus. The Emory Medal was first awarded in 1946 and is the highest honor given solely to alumni by the university.

As a lawyer, Oakley has worked for decades to better the lives of women and minorities by advocating on behalf of reproductive rights, children’s rights, and employment law.

Turpin has demonstrated a lifelong commitment to improving the health and welfare of children around the world. He founded Project Concern International (PCI), a global humanitarian organization that works to promote health and self-sufficiency in poverty-stricken populations by preventing disease, improving community health, and supporting sustainable development. PCI reaches more than five million people each year in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

During her many years as an employment lawyer, Oakley spent countless hours in the courtroom representing employees. The current sexual harassment policies for the City of Atlanta and for the State Bar of Georgia exist largely thanks to her leadership of key task forces. She also submitted a supporting brief for the ruling on a case that set the first precedent for giving domestic partner benefits to Atlanta city employees.

Oakley has been an integral part of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Guardian ad Litem program and has appeared regularly in court on behalf of children in the middle of challenging custody and visitation cases. She also has clocked numerous pro bono hours fighting for abused and overlooked children.

Oakley was listed among the Best Lawyers in America for nearly twenty years. She served as mentor to many young lawyers just entering the profession, and served on and chaired both the Investigative Panel of the State Bar and the Georgia Board of Bar Examiners.

“Emory law school gave me the gift that enabled me to shape my life in many ways, to think critically and to analyze and synthesize information,” she said after receiving the honor. “This has been critical in my ability to help those who could not find help in any other place. It has helped me to help them find justice in places where justice is too often denied. It has helped me to do the things that make this world a better place.”

Turpin began his professional career working as a family physician, performing a residency in family practice in Santa Rosa, California, and briefly practicing in Chickamauga, Georgia, before taking over a thriving medical practice in Coronado, California, from a retiring physician.

“We had five wonderful years there, but my restlessness continued. I tried everything I could to be content there, but I couldn’t,” he says. To satisfy his desire to serve, he began volunteering with a medical clinic in Tijuana, Mexico.

“One night we had two kids dying with bronchopneumonia. With the help of volunteer nurses, we helped those kids survive the night,” he says. “I didn’t sleep that night. I had an epiphany. If those kids had died, some part of me would have died. Project Concern started for me that morning.”

After unsuccessfully writing to several existing international aid programs hoping to find a position, Turpin was frustrated but undeterred. A friend challenged him to start his own organization, so he established PCI. He immediately began receiving support from local service clubs, church groups, and the Chinese communities in San Francisco, San Diego, and Vancouver.

Turpin, his wife, and their four children packed their bags for Hong Kong and moved into their new residence: a 62-foot barge named Yauh Oi—Chinese for Brotherly Love—that served as a modern floating medical clinic for thirty-five thousand “boat people” in Hong Kong’s typhoon shelter.

Turpin and his colleagues soon recognized that curing existing disease only addressed half the problem, as patients returned home to face the same conditions that had made them sick in the first place. Their reaction was to convert an abandoned US Special Forces camp into a training center for villagers in the mountains of Vietnam. PCI began in China, and programs in Tijuana, Indonesia, Appalachia, and the Navajo Reservations all followed in quick succession.

Project Concern now operates in nineteen countries. Though Turpin is retired, he often travels to visit PCI bases around the world as a spokesperson and advocate. His unwavering energies earned him the Red Cross Humanitarian of the Year Award in 1994.

At 83, he continues to find ways to serve his community, practicing as the clinic physician at the county jail near his home in North Carolina two mornings a week. He is devoted to his family, spending as much time as possible with his wife, Wrenn, his children, and his grandchildren.

“I started Project Concern because I needed to,” said Turpin after being presented with his medal. “I didn’t have any choice. If I wanted to be happy, if I wanted to be fulfilled, I had to do this kind of work.”

At the end of the ceremony, President James Wagner summed up the evening with gratitude for the example set by the 2011 medalists.

“Thank you for your faithful and selfless gifts to the world. We are humbled by your service,” Wagner said.

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