How a ‘Tough Guy’ changed his tune: On Father’s Day, gratitude toward family

How a ‘Tough Guy’ changed his tune: On Father’s Day, gratitude toward family


WESTERLY — Today is Father’s Day but Dave Turnbull would just as soon call it Children’s Day or Family Day.

The 55-year-old, known to some for the restaurants he ran in the area, plans to spend the day celebrating the goodness of his five children, Marissa, Briana, Kaitelynn, Drew, and Connor; his grandson, Tye; and his girlfriend, Shelly Holiday.

“All my life I’ve heard ‘My father was this and my father was that.’ I think it’s really important on Father’s Day for fathers to realize that this world would be a better place if daddies appreciated what the kids do and if the fathers said, ‘You know I’m really proud of you,” Turnbull said.

He readily acknowledges his focus on family is partly due to his reliance on them during the past year. In the early morning hours of June 22 he awoke in extreme pain. He was taken to Westerly Hospital where he was quickly found to be in septic shock — a dangerous infection of the blood. Dr. Micheal Betler performed emergency surgery to remove a portion of Turnbull’s small intestine and he was sent to Rhode Island Hospital, where the diagnosis was a cancerous gastrointestinal stromal tumor. Since then he has had six surgeries, including one to remove a portion of one of his kidneys.

He has good days and bad days when it is hard to walk or get out of bed. But through it all he draws strength from those around him. “It’s amazing what you can do with the love of family,” Turnbull said.

Turnbull’s doctors have told him his form of cancer is not curable, and the best hope is to contain it and hope that new tumors do not form. Along the sometimes rough road, Turnbull and his family have looked for ways to keep his spirits buoyed. On a bit of a lark, he applied to appear on Guy Fieri’s “Guy’s Grocery Games” show on the Food Network. After hearing nothing for about two months, Turnbull received a call from the show’s producers and eventually was booked to appear, along with his son, Drew, on a fathers and sons episode. The show airs tonight at 8 p.m.

“It was the experience of a lifetime for a son and a dad,” Turnbull said.

Turnbull, who bears a striking resemblance to Fieri, had met the famed chef once before at Foxwoods Resort Casino, where Turnbull was one of the original five executive sous chefs when the facility opened in 1986. Turnbull also opened and ran DT’s Family Diner in Westerly and Ernie T’s in Hope Valley. Drew, 19, learned the cooking trade from spending hours and hours, over the years, in his dad’s restaurants.

Turnbull and Drew flew out to California for the eight-hour-long taping, which took place in the show’s grocery store studio in Santa Rosa. Fieri proved to be a mensch.

“He was a cool dude, kind and genuine...compassionate and very caring about my illness,” Turnbull said. “It lifts your spirits, the kindness of people.”

Turnbull came away from his moments of fame with a pair of the celebrity chef’s sunglasses, which were signed and delivered to his hotel after the taping.

A product of the Chariho Career and Technical Center’s culinary arts program and a graduate of Johnson & Wales, Turnbull is a seasoned youth sports coach. It’s a position from which he draws inspiration. During a recent interview he related the story of a boy he coached for years who was usually at the end of the pack during the team’s conditioning runs. “I’d always join him and tell him to keep year he will start on the Westerly High School football team. He never gave up,” Turnbull said.

While he was a patient at Rhode Island Hospital, Turnbull looked out the window at the nearby Hasbro Children’s Hospital playground. “I saw those little dudes, who are sick with cancer and other things, fighting to climb up onto the swing set and I said to myself, ‘Fight Dave, you have to fight,’” Turnbull said.

As a young man, Turnbull said he thought of himself as indestructible, a self-described “tough guy.” He continues to think of himself that way but has changed how he looks at the world.

“A tough guy, a real man tells his children every day, ‘I love you,’ and builds up his children,” he said.

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