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Turnupseed, 2nd driver in James Dean crash, dies at 63

Tularean built family electric business as he resisted publicity for 40 years

Donald Turnupseed, the Tulare man who quietly built a family business and endeavored to maintain his privacy after being involved in the car accident that killed actor James Dean four decades ago, has died at age 63. Requests for interviews about the Sept. 30, 1955, crash came from around the world and served as a constant annoyance to Turnupseed.

"That's something that bothered him his whole life. That's not Donald Turnupseed," said Wally Nelson, president of Turnupseed Electric in Tulare.

As this year's 40th anniversary of the crash approached, requests for interviews continued. A German journalist was the last the call, Nelson said.

"He's been bothered by people constantly trying to write a story." Nelson said. "There's always somebody calling up or coming to the door. We had to push them out the door."

Although he has refused interviews for decades, Turnupseed did speak with the Tulare Advance Register hours after the crash. It occurred when he pulled his 1950 Ford from Highway 46 onto Highway 41 near Cholame. Turnupseed's car was struck by a speeding silver grey Porsche Spyder driven by Dean, who at 24 was the star of three major films. "I didn't see him coming," Turnupseed said.

Turnupseed was coming home to Tulare from Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, where he was a student. Dean was in route to a race in Salinas. His mechanic was a passenger.

Dean, star of "East of Eden" and "Rebel Without a Cause" in 1955 and "Giant in 1956, died in an ambulance headed for a Paso Robles hospital. His mechanic, Rolf Wuetherich, was seriously injured but recovered. Wuetherich died in 1981 in a car crash in West Germany.

On advise from la California Highway Patrol officer, Turnupseed hitch-hiked to Tulare after the crash. He was treated for a scraped nose and bruises at Tulare District Hospital.

Extensive investigation of the accident never established guilt, said C.R. "Budgie" Sturgeon, a partner in Spuhler and Sturgeon Insurance, which had a policy on Turnupseed's Ford. "It was never established whose fault it was. It just died."

Turnupseed's family declined to be interviewed for this story. With the aid of his late parents, Harley and Ruth Turnupseed, the Porterville native built an electrical contracting business with commercial clients across the San Joaquin Valley and the central coast. Customers include Kraft Foods, Haagen Dazs, US Cold Storage and California Milk Producers, among others. The 48-year old company which employs and average of 75 workers, has branch offices in Bakersfield and Fresno and annual sales of about $15 million. "They were tough competitors," said Al Paggi, owner of Paggi Electric. "As a business person, (Donald Turnupseed) learned from his dad. His dad was a very, very tough-minded person. But they never shorted anybody on their work."

Unlike his father, Donald Turnupseed was likeable, but not outgoing, Paggi said. "You could never get close to Don." The business owner was quiet even before the crash, Paggi said. The accident probably caused Turnupseed to be more private still, Paggi said. "More than likely," he said.

Turnupseed developed a fondness for cars while a student at Tulare Union High School in the 1940s when he got a Model A, said Al Paggi, owner of Paggi Electric.

"He turned it into a little race car." Paggi said. Years later, he built dune buggies, nelson said. "The last 10 years he didn't do that much," Nelson said. "The last 10 years he didn't do that much," Nelson said, "He devoted a lot of time to business. Business was his hobby."

Turnupseed was an innovator, including selling clients on preventative maintenance programs, Nelson said. "They had a chance to fix it before down time."

Turnupseed was president of the San Joaquin Valley chapter of National Electrical Contractors Association 1990-94. He handed control of his company to Nelson last year as his lung cancer progressed. But he kept close ties to the business, Nelson said.

He is survived by his wife, Mollie Turnupseed, Tulare; two sons, David and Donald Bruce Turnupseed, both of Tulare; one stepson, Rick Bradley, Coalinga; one daughter, Peggy Henson, Fresno; and five grandchildren.

Visitation will be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at Miller's Tulare Funeral Home. Graveside services will be at 10 a.m. Monday in Tulare Cemetery. Remembrances may be sent to Hospice of Tulare County, 605 W. Willow Ave, Visalia, CA 93201.

from the Tulare Advanced Register, July 13/14, 1995


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