When he was not inspiring meaningful conversation in his students, pursuing his passion for baking or empowering the disabled, Fr. Richard Curry, S.J., would give loud and friendly greetings to any passerby, stranger and friend alike.
“How are you, my friend?” he would exclaim, forcing all who passed him to crack a smile. His energy and compassion were contagious. Even after his passing, his compassion lives on in his deeds, relationships and achievements.
The Georgetown community celebrated Curry’s life Wednesday with a memorial Mass in Dahlgren Chapel. Curry, who passed away Dec. 19 from heart failure at the age of 72, was buried in Wernersville, Pa., at the Jesuit center where he was first ordained as a priest in 2009.
Raised in Philadelphia, Pa., Curry suffered from a birth defect and was born without a right forearm. In an attempt to boost his son’s confidence for a potential career in law, Curry’s father sent him to acting classes, inspiring Curry to pursue stagecraft.
Following his graduation from St. Joseph’s Preparatory, Curry joined the Jesuit Order as a brother in 1962 at age 19, though he would not become ordained until many decades later.
“The Jesuits really appreciated the intellect, they taught you how to think. This was something I didn’t have any barriers to,” Curry said in an interview with 60 Minutes in 2002.
While pursuing a Ph.D. in theater arts at New York University in 1977, Curry attempted to make money on the side by acting in commercials. However, when he went to audition for a mouthwash commercial, Curry could not pass the receptionist because of his disability.
“She burst out laughing hysterically,” Curry said in the 60 Minutes interview. “She turned, just like that, and said ‘Oh, I can’t send you upstairs. No, forget it.’”
Though his disability resulted in an unsuccessful audition, Curry was inspired by the ordeal to found the National Theater Workshop of the Handicapped in 1977, an institute dedicated to training those with disabilities in the art of theater and performance.
With campuses in both New York and Maine, the institute has allowed numerous individuals to participate in theater and practice their acting professionally. Curry himself continued to perform, even portraying a psychiatrist in one episode of the television detective series “Monk” in 2006.
Serving Veterans and Serving Bread
Twenty-seven years after founding the NTWH, Curry began the Writers’ Program for Wounded Soldiers in 2003, an initiative dedicated to helping disabled soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with emotional rehabilitation.
Six years after the program’s inauguration, Curry came to Georgetown as a chaplain-in-residence. He organized community support to develop the Academy for Veterans, an organization designed to help disabled veterans rebuild their lives and respond to their emotional needs.
“Eloquentia perfecta, the perfection of eloquence, is the end result of Jesuit education,” Curry said in an interview with PBS in 2010. “The student can stand on his or her own two feet and defend what he or she believes. This is what I wanted to do for the disabled, who have been ignored for so long.
While involved with the Academy of Veterans, Curry was still a Jesuit brother, but this changed when a triple amputee requested him, seeking counsel and absolution.
“I explained that I was a brother and had never been called to be a priest,” Father Curry said in SJU Magazine of Saint Joseph’s University. “He asked, ‘What do you mean? Who has to call you?’ I said, ‘God, or the Christian community.’ He replied, ‘Well, then, I’m calling you. I want you to be a priest.’”
Curry required special dispensation from the Vatican in order to become a priest, due to preexisting rules mandating priests to have two hands to perform Mass, and during the fall of 2009, Curry was finally ordained as a Jesuit Father and priest at the age of 66.
As Curry continued his work within the Georgetown community, he began to search for a way to further help veterans and their spouses with employment and business experience.
Curry had already translated his passion for cooking and baking into two cookbooks, “The Secrets of Jesuit Soupmaking: A Year of our Soups” (2002) and “The Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking” (1995).
Using his passion for cooking, along with a partnership with local entrepreneur Connie Milstein, he helped found Dog Tag Bakery in 2014 to teach veterans tangible business skills while also providing employment.
The bakery has a partnership with the Georgetown School of Continuing Studies to offer employees night courses in small-business administration and entrepreneurship.
Curry said in a 2014 article in The Hoya [“Bakery Prepares for Launch,” The Hoya, Nov. 14, 2014] that the bakery offers veterans the chance to pursue their dreams.
“Everyone should make the most of this opportunity. All of you veterans have great business ideas and you may find someone here with a similar idea and the means with which to make your dream come true,” Curry said.
Director of the Veterans Office at Georgetown LeNaya Hezel praised Curry for his efforts toward the veteran community.
“Through his work as a Jesuit, professor, actor and military ally, he made monumental positive impacts on so many lives, and I am confident that his spirit will go on through the lives he impacted,” she wrote in an email to The Hoya. “He will be thoroughly missed by the Veterans Office and the many military students he supported on campus, but never forgotten.”
Inspiring Friendship and Reflection
In addition to giving back to the veterans’ community at Georgetown, Curry taught the unique and immensely popular “Theater and the Catholic Imagination” class, notable for its final project, a ‘flash mob’ performance by students in the class around campus.
In previous years, students performed a tap dance in O’Donovan Hall and the Intercultural Center, in addition to an individual final monologue titled “What I believe in,” in which students performed a theatrical piece detailing their deepest passions and motivations.
“The important thing is that you can find God in all things. That’s a Jesuit principle. What you try to do is show how thing scan reflect the goodness of God,” Curry said in an article on The Hoya’s blog, 4E following the Leo’s ‘flash-mob.’ “Performance and tap-dancing can do that, too. It brought an amazing amount of joy to the students and to the audience.”
While students outside of the class recognized Fr. Curry’s teaching for his unique final projects, Curry’s students most fondly remember the class for the bonds they formed with classmates.
Derek Embry (MSB ’15), a friend and former student of Curry’s, recounts his uncanny ability to bring people together as one of Curry’s greatest attributes.
“He was able to deliver his material successfully and in a way that got everyone in the class to become really close friends,” Embry said. “I’m glad I learned everything that I did in the class but more important than that was that I was able to make a very good group of friends and share with them personal information about myself and my experiences in life and still maintain a relationship with the professor, who ended up being an important part of my life.”
“I think the most impactful moment with Father Curry was him telling us to memorize everyone in my class. I have never known all of the students in my class since I have been at Georgetown and I think that was the moment I knew he was an exceptional guy,” former student William Dean (MSB ’16) said.
While Curry experienced many health problems during his final years, he never let his physical ailments come in the way of inspiring passion in his students.
“When he became seriously ill a few years ago, I was asked to take over his class. … When I walked into the classroom and saw 87 devastated students, I realized I would never be able to replace this formidable man,” professor of Spanish and Portuguese and faculty advisor for the Georgetown Student Veterans Association Barbara Mujica said at Curry’s memorial service.
Fr. Curry’s former student Daniel Wright (MSB ’16) echoed Mujica’s praise.
“He would show up to class with every ounce of energy he had even though he was sick, and he gave it to us, and then … even when he wasn’t there for us we gave every ounce of energy that we had in that hour and 15 minutes to each other,” he said. “And now I think all of us have a family of bonds that we will never forget.”
Chris Yedibalian (COL ’13), who currently works as business manager of Dog Tag Bakery, recalled Curry sacrificing his own health to do what he loved.
“He loved his class so much that he refused to miss it. Barely able to walk this past semester, he showed up to class week after week in a wheelchair, oxygen cans at his body’s side, knowing full well this level of exertion would put him back in the hospital the next day,” Yedibalian said. “Yet he would repeat this routine week after week, class to hospital, class to hospital. It simply was not an option that he was ever not going to be there for his students.
Curry’s Legacy of Compassion
Through Curry’s passion, drive and genuine caring, he has inspired students and faculty alike to live out Jesuit ideals.
Wednesday’s memorial service featured remarks and prayers from Jesuits, including Vice President for Mission and Ministry Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J and Fr. Joseph Lingan, S.J., as well as Mujica and former students Yedibilian and Will Wrotniak (SFS ’18).
In attendance were Curry’s family members, including his sister Sr. Denise Curry from Notre Dame de Namur University who gave a reading at the service, his cousin Jim Curry and many students from his fall semester class.
“Fr. Curry was a good friend and an exemplary Jesuit,” O’Brien said at the memorial. “He was able to reach all different kinds of people, and, above all, helped each person find their distinctive, God-given voice. His sense of humor was contagious, and his love for God and his vocation as a Jesuit was clear to anyone who knew him.”
In his remarks, Lingan reminded attendees to acknowledge the purpose behind the gathering and look to Curry’s life as one to be celebrated.
“We gather to remember and celebrate a remarkable man of compassion and ideals, a man of courage and intelligence, a man of depth and generosity, a man of faith and a man of humor,” Lingnan said. “We gather to remind ourselves of this truth: That love endures, even after death.”
Curry inspired many through living by example in genuine caring for all people. Embry said that the greatest lesson he learned from Curry was to value the experiences and stories of all people, regardless of ability, age or creed.
“He taught me that every single person on earth, whether you realize it or not, has some sort of very magnificent and complicated story that if you give them a chance to tell, will blow you away,” Embry said.
Fr. Patrick Rogers, S.J., said that Curry’s unyielding passion for life continues to inspire him.
“His enthusiasm for life was something that always stuck with me no matter when I saw him; even from his hospital bed I would walk in and he’d say ‘Hey Patrick, how are you doing?’ or ‘Hey handsome how are ya it’s good to see you,’” Rogers said. “He connects to people in ways that they haven’t and that teaches you to — no matter how you feel and what your perspective is — to find the good in others.”
Yedibilian emphasized that Curry personified the Jesuit ideal of caring for others.
“If there is one single recurring sentiment I’ve heard from friends and families from different stages of his life, it’s gratitude for how singularly impactful this man was to each of them,” Yedibilian said. “He had a heart of gold and truly gave himself to everyone around him. He was a man for others.”