Mary Palek Turner was born in Williamstown, Pennsylvania in 1930 and raised in Linden, New Jersey. She graduated from high school in 1948 and enrolled in nursing school in Jersey City. After she completed the program in September 1951, she worked in a tuberculosis hospital. In 1952 she attended Wheaton College in Illinois, while working during the day at Chicago Presbyterian Hospital to help pay her tuition. When she realized she was unable to support herself through school, she was referred to an air force recruiter.
Turner entered in the air force in the summer of 1952 and completed her basic training at Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. She was assigned to Mitchel Air Force Base in Long Island, New York, where she spent eight months performing general nursing. On May 2, 1953, she married James Turner so they could be stationed together overseas. After a brief delay, she was sent to Tokyo, where she worked in a day clinic for four months, while her husband was stationed in Hawaii. When the Korean War ended, Turner was reassigned to Hawaii to work in her husband's clinic. She was discharged from the air force in 1954.
Turner and her husband moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, after their active duty service, but remained in the reserves. They opened and operated a medical practice in Kernersville for five years before James enlisted in the Public Health Service. Following two years stationed on Long Island, the couple returned to the Triad. Turner earned a BA in political science and a master’s in public administration from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She wrote a column called “Yoda and Me” for the Kernersville News and was a member of the American Legion. The Turners had three children, one of whom was in the navy.