by Audrey Thomasson
KILMARNOCK—Joe Curry, who rose from childhood poverty, segregation and a career of crabbing local waters to becoming one of the area’s most influential humanitarians and community leaders, passed away last week.
Death came silently as he slept, just 95 days after his life partner and wife, Rose Moody Curry, passed. He was 84.
Curry was the kind of man who quietly helped the poor and became a bridge across the divide of segregation. One phone call to Curry and Curry Pottery on Mary Ball Road between Kilmarnock and White Stone and he would put the wheels in motion for emergency home repairs or a wheel chair ramp for the needy.
Curry was so well-connected with state, community and business leaders, his office became a hub for people looking for his counsel on matters such as politics, running for office or seeking help on projects. Many important decisions were influenced with just one phone call from Joe Curry.
“Joe had this way about him. It’s hard to turn him down,” said William Lee, chairman of the Lancaster board of supervisors. For years, Lee had brushed off suggestions he run for supervisor in District 4. After the death of supervisor Jack Russell, the requests began flowing in again. Curry was the one who finally persuaded him to accept the appointment to serve out Russell’s term and then run again in the next election.
“I was very fond of him and admired his community spirit,” said former Virginia Governor Linwood Holton of his friend. “He was a major influence in this community. He did more good than anyone I can imagine for anyone who was in need.”
“Joe was the greatest humanitarian that I have personally known,” said Jimmie Carter, president of the Rappahannock General Hospital Foundation, who served on the board of Bay Aging with Curry. “Lots of people worry about others, but Joe did things for people every day, all the time. Joe was always concerned that service was provided to the neediest. He was always worried about the underdog, always reaching into his own pocket; he was very generous.”
And Carter said he didn’t forget about Bay Aging employees. “He made sure they were paid appropriately,” said Carter. “He bridged social barriers with grace and bridged white and black relationships. He was authentic. I can’t think of anyone who had more respect than Joe Curry,” he said.
Born in 1933
Curry was born in the midst of the Great Depression, the third child of a waterman father. He has a twin sister, Josaphine. They are one of three sets of twins among his 19 brothers and sisters.
“When he was a young kid, he would always disappear. They say you could find him up in a tree reading a book,” said Curry’s son, Jimmy. “He was always the favorite child. The other kids had to pick tomatoes. They’d save the green ones to throw at him because he was the dreamer up in the tree.
“What I learned about my dad was how hard he worked. He had five kids to support—two sons and three daughters. I remember him coming home after long hours of working on the water and then selling fish on the weekend,” he said.
Generations of the Currys were watermen and crabbers, according to Jimmy. “My dad and grandfather also built crab pots.”
Jimmy learned the value of hard work from them. “My dad always said, ‘There’s a vast world out there to conquer. Try to be the best you can be and try your hardest.’”
Curry sold steamed crabs at his old location on the south end of Kilmarnock for many years, but finally stopped around 1990 as he got more into the pottery business.
After the children were grown, Curry turned his attention to the community. “He didn’t care who they were, he helped them,” said Jimmy. “He’d go up and down the road with Allen Ball” helping people.
Jimmy credits the influence of his father’s work ethic with his own success in qualifying for “nuclear power school in the Navy” and later working on a nuclear submarine.
“In the last seven or eight years we got real close…I got close to a person you can’t get close to,” said his son.
In school, Curry knew more than some of the teachers and would take over the class,” according to daughter Pam Munford. He enlisted in the Marines right after high school and served in the Korean War. “My dad never talked about the past. He lived in the present and looked to the future.”
Munford said her father grew up in a very religious family and that upbringing guided him toward helping others. Among his favorite charities was the Boys and Girls Club. “That was his heart. He felt as an African-American business he should help as much as he could.”
According to county administrator Frank Pleva, some of the agencies and commissions Curry served on included the Northern Neck Planning District Commission (since 2003), Bay Aging Board (2006) and Lancaster County Economic Development Authority (2012). He also served on the county planning commission.
Curry received numerous awards throughout his life for his charitable work and service, including from the Lancaster/Northumberland Interfaith Service Council, the 2009 Community Leader award from the local chapter of the American Red Cross, American Heart Association, Kiwanis Club, Rotary International and Lancaster County.
Curry worked up to the last day of his life. Now the office once bustling with community leaders is empty. A picture of Curry with Gen. Colin Powell still sits on top of his desk as his family sorts through his business papers.
“There’s a big hole left in the community that’s hard to fill,” said Lee.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, September 23, at the Lancaster Middle School Theater, 191 School Street, Kilmarnock, followed by a gathering at the Boys and Girls Club.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Boys and Girls Club of the Northern Neck, the Lancaster/Northumberland Interfaith Service Council or the American Red Cross.