History is filled with interesting accounts, intriguing anecdotes, ripping yarns and even a few tall tales. For nearly five decades, Lawrence Curry has happily shared such material — plus a few of his own devising — with countless students at the University of Houston. Sometimes, those lectures even take on a life of their own.
“One time, I was explaining to my students what a “Yellow Dog Democrat” is and an old yellow dog walked up and lay on the stage,” Curry recalled. “I suspect my students thought I had set that up, but I hadn’t.”
That incident happened in the auditorium of Agnes Arnold Hall several years ago, Curry explained, when stray dogs occasionally wandered across campus. Since then, UH has changed considerably … and so has Curry.
At 80, Curry now walks a little slower, yet he remains keen and stately. He often is observed on campus with a worn UH canvas bag in hand, heading to a freshman introductory course in U.S. history. He has been teaching the class as an adjunct professor since 2006, five years after he retired with the professor emeritus title.
“I wish everybody had as much love of history as I do, but I don’t teach ‘Happy History’. You can’t really love your country unless you know your country. So, I hope I’m helping my students to see how the past has influenced the present. If they understand the sources of racism, for example, they may be able to see it more clearly,” Curry said. “If they see the conflict between local interests and national interests and how that conflict has been a constant through much of American history, they may be better citizens. I tell my students that I’m helping them to learn to think for themselves, to recognize the difference between sense and nonsense.”
Clearly, Curry is passionate, both about the subject he teaches and the University he has long served. Curry has taught close to 10,000 students during the course of his UH career, which started in 1968 shortly after he completed his doctoral studies in history at Duke University.
“Back then, you didn’t need a Ph.D. in hand to teach at UH,” Curry recalled. “I finished my dissertation in 1971. I thought I would be at UH for only a few years, but I received tenure. I’ve been happy here ever since.”
Judging by the number of accolades Curry has received, he also has been highly regarded.
You can’t really love your country unless you know your country.
He is the recipient of three teaching excellence awards, the Honors College Distinguished Service Award, the UH Alumni Association Faculty Award and the George Magner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Advising.
But Curry’s impact at UH goes far beyond the classroom. For nearly a quarter of a century, he served as associate dean for undergraduate studies in the then-College of Humanities, Fine Arts and Communication (now the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences). He also has been involved in various organizations, including the Faculty Senate and the defunct Faculty Union. He also is an officer and board member of the UH System Retirees Association.
Over the years, Curry also has become a leader, literally, in UH’s most honored tradition — commencement. He has not only served as a member of the University-wide commencement planning committee since the late 1980s, but has been a participant in the event as well.
Curry has served as marshal for every general commencement from May 1987 to May 2003 and as the college marshal 54 times since 1977. He also was the marshal at the inaugurations of three UH presidents — Marguerite Ross Barnett, Arthur K. Smith and Renu Khator.
“It’s a thrilling experience to see the accumulation of all those students who have finished their degrees and are there to celebrate,” Curry said.
Among the many ceremonies he attended, the 1994 spring commencement stands out to Curry. Former President George H.W. Bush delivered the keynote speech, which was notable enough, but the logistics of his appearance were truly memorable.
“It took us 45 minutes to get the students and platform party into Hofheinz Pavilion. The Secret Service had been assured that President Bush would not be in a vulnerable position, but there he was, standing in the tunnel for about 20 minutes,” Curry said. “The Secret Service was going crazy, but he shook hands with every graduate who passed him.”
Curry’s own undergraduate commencement at the University of South Carolina in 1957 was equally unforgettable; a young Massachusetts senator named John F. Kennedy delivered the speech. Curry would recall that speech a few years later while serving as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force in West Germany. He was involved in one of the most tense situations in U.S. history — the Cuban missile crisis.
The night of Oct. 22, 1962, Curry was the intelligence officer on duty in the command post at Air Force headquarters in Europe. Earlier that day, Kennedy had announced the establishment of a U.S. naval quarantine around Cuba after discovering Soviet nuclear missiles in that nation. If the Soviet Union responded militarily, the U.S. was prepared to act, Curry said.
That night, Curry was responsible for the safe that contained codes to verify any classified orders the U.S. may have given to the Air Force in Europe. Fortunately, Curry said, none was received, at least not on his shift. Curry served 23 years in the Air Force — five years on active duty and 18 in the Ready Reserve — and retired a lieutenant colonel at the age of 60.
Curry often recounts his experiences with his students and, of course, his loved ones. He and his wife, Patricia, have seven children and 19 grandchildren in their blended family. The two of them enjoy the arts, both on and off campus, and are long-time season tickets holders of the UH School of Theatre & Dance. Curry also has been a football season ticket holder since 1968 and a men’s basketball season ticket holder since Hofheinz Pavilion first opened in 1969.
Looking back, Curry said he has never regretted coming to UH or teaching history — a passion that stems from his childhood. His parents, both of whom spent most of their lives working in education, inspired him to teach. But it was winning the American Legion Award for best history student in the 11th grade in his hometown of Greenville, S. C., that set him on the path to a career as an historian.
Now, after nearly 50 years at the University, Curry may yet be ready to close the chapter on his campus career.
“If I have a positive impact on two or three students per semester,” Curry said, “then I’d say that’s worth the effort.”