My brother died five years ago today, six years younger than I, two years older than my father at his death, leaving me the oldest male in the family line ever (that we know of) and, more importantly, a great void in my life and that of his wife and daughters. It was a second tragedy for them; her first husband and the girls’ mother had both died young previously.
He was a very good man, doing good work, the sort of person who is very much out of fashion in a world where we make fun of community organizers.
We were not close in the most traditional sense, but I miss him still and will under I too am gone.
This is what I wrote after his memorial service in Columbus Ohio.
Thursday, October 2, 2003
“I am his work…”
The call came from my niece, Sarah, mid-day on Monday, September 15. My brother, Ken Curtin, her father, had died suddenly and unexpectedly that morning of a massive heart attack at his home in Columbus, Ohio. It was a tragedy for his family and friends, of course, but it was more than that. It was also a tragedy for the poor and disenfranchised of Columbus, the people he spent his entire career helping and protecting.
My brother worked all of his days improving lives and sometimes even saving lives. In a story headlined “Lawyer Known for Helping Poor,” which ran in the Columbus Dispatch the Saturday after his demise, reporter Kevin Kidder told the story of how Ken made it possible for a Columbus woman named Josephine Dunzo receive a kidney transplant from her brother in Ghana last year. The U.S. government would not give her brother a visa to get into the country until Ken worked his way through the bureaucratic maze and made it happen, just in time. And he was working on a similar transplant case at the time of his demise.
My brother grew up in Kennett Square and ended up in Columbus after his graduation from Villanova University and Cornell University Law School as a part of the VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program. He and other trainees in Chicago in the summer of 1968 were shipped out to their postings early because of the riots at the Democratic National Convention. He fell in love with the city and never left.
He first worked as an attorney at the South Side Settlement House and later served on its Board of Directors for 12 years, but spent most of his career with the Columbus Legal Aid Society. In 2000, he created the Legal Aid Neighborhood Services Project, which sent lawyers into settlement houses throughout the city to work on issues affecting the poor. He had a state-wide reputation as a Medicaid expert and handled a great deal of important federal litigation protecting the rights of people on Medicaid.
I was proud as hell of him.
A memorial service was held a week after Ken’s death at Atonement Lutheran Church. Sadly, the Curtin family already had experience with this kind of event in this very venue. Ken’s first wife, Peg, died of cancer a decade ago and we’d had a similar gathering at that time. Afterward, I wrote this about the crowd: “The people who gathered to remember Peg Curtin are the sort of folks who are out of fashion today, good people doing serious work, physicians and lawyers and social workers who believe that society has an obligation to its weakest and poorest members.” The same can be said of those who came together on September 22 and filled the place to near capacity.
Ken’s widow, Jeanne Grothaus, opened the memorial with a loving account of his life and work and what he had meant to his community. Ken and Jeanne found one another because, as one old friend from New York later joked, “Peg was a trained social worker and left a referral.” Peg met Jeanne, whose first husband also died of cancer, while she was in the hospital and introduced her to Ken. They blended their two families together as a seamless unit: Ken’s Sarah and her sister Karen (who had to fly in from Japan, where she’s teaching English), Jeanne’s John and Leslie. Karen spoke for that generation, telling us that her father was her hero “and always will be.”
I was the final family member to speak, talking briefly of our childhood and where we had come from. We saw each other only occasionally in recent years, usually during his annual trek, with entire family and childrens’ various friends in tow, to Avalon, N.J., where he rented a big house on the beach. I didn’t get down there to see him this summer but, oh so fortunately as things turned out, we did meet, on the Saturday he was leaving for home, at the old farmhouse outside Kennett Square where our relatives have lived for more than 130 years. On that day in late June, our cousin Betty took him outside and showed him the towering tree which had grown from the small sapling she had planted the day following his marriage to Peg nearly three decades ago. I hope seeing that tree, flourishing on the very ground where our father, an orphan early on, was raised by his mother’s family, the ground on which he learned to play baseball well enough to earn a college scholarship and make all our lives possible, was a profound moment for him. It surely would have been so for me.
Several of Ken’s colleagues and friends spoke after that, telling stories both poignant and near hilarious, remembering his life and his work. But the speaker who rose above us all, the one whose contribution was transcendent and which summed up Ken’s life in a few simple words, was not even on the schedule.
When we had finished the scheduled remarks, the Rev. Daniel Bell asked if there was anyone else who would like to say anything. After a moment, a black woman stood up and walked to the front of the church and turned to face us. This was Josephine Dunzo, the woman whose life Ken had saved last year by getting her brother into this country. And this is what she said:
“I’ve heard all the things you’ve said about Mr. Ken. I always called him that, Mr. Ken, and I told him he was my father. He said no, but he was my father here. He would call me and talk to me and he helped me. Everyone here spoke of the things he did, of his work….” She paused and opened her arms as if to embrace the entire room. “I am his work,” she said. “I am alive.”