|Dave Curry (photo: VVAW.org)|
There was a memorial service in Chicago today for Dave Curry, a long-time leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I learned of his death and memorial service in an email this morning. I’m sorry to say I didn’t know Dave well, living and working as I have mostly on the East Coast, but his life exemplified what remarkable, life-long civic activists grew from this dissident group of ticked off war veterans.
“Few people at the University of Missouri-St. Louis knew that respected criminology professor David Curry had been sentenced to 34 years in prison on federal drug charges. Or that, years later, he had been granted a rare presidential pardon,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted in its obituary on Curry’s death in April, at age 66, of congestive heart disease. He also suffered from Parkinson’s disease and hepatitis C, two other maladies that have afflicted many Vietnam vets.
The arc of his life was like a movie plot, former academic colleagues stated in a tribute on the American Society of Criminology website. Growing up in an impoverished coal-mining family, “Dave never finished the twelfth grade, but his test scores were so high that he was admitted to a community college and then the University of Southern Mississippi without a high school diploma, earning a B.S. in Sociology (with a minor in Mathematics) in 1969,” noted former collegiate colleagues Bob Bursik and Jim Lynch. “Since he was supported at USM by an Army ROTC scholarship, he was obligated to serve a tour of duty. He was sent to Vietnam as an intelligence officer and eventually was promoted to captain.
“Upon his return, he enrolled at the University of Mississippi, where he was awarded an M.A. in Sociology in 1973. In addition, greatly disillusioned by what he had experienced in Southeast Asia, he served as the Mississippi state coordinator of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Upon completion of his degree, he enrolled in the doctoral program in Sociology at the University of Chicago in 1973 (when and where we first met him), graduating with his Ph.D. in 1976.
“His odyssey becomes even stranger at this point. He accepted a tenure track position in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of South Alabama, achieving the rank of Associate Professor and serving regularly as an expert witness for the local NAACP- affiliated law firm and the Southern Poverty Law Center. He also intensified his work with the VVAW. These activities did not sit well with the Alabama political power brokers and they assigned a Special Agent from the Alabama Bureau of Investigation to go undercover with the VVAW in an effort to take Dave down.”
One drug sting later, Dave Curry was convicted of cocaine distribution and sentenced to 34 years in prison. That’s the kind of heat VVAW and other social activists faced in the 1960s and 70s. But Dave had a lot of supporters, who got him out of jail, back into academic work, and convinced President Bill Clinton to issue a pardon in 2000.
“Upon his release, Dave accepted a position at West Virginia University (1989) and then joined the CCJ faculty at UMSL in 1994,” Bursik and Lynch noted. “At that point he already had garnered international acclaim for his work in military sociology and his studies of street gang activities, which later expanded into a focus on youth violence in general. Not only did he continue to be a prolific researcher but he was highly devoted to his teaching responsibilities and in 2004 received the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Service. He also served on the national boards of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America (winning its Advocacy Award in 2001). He retired in 2011 for health reasons and moved to Mobile, Alabama.”
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