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Time for one more gift
By JOCELYN WIENER, Times Staff Writer
LABELLE -- They've written thank-you notes. Called him an angel in long, gushing letters. Sent bouquets and billfolds. Kenneth Curtis has met only a handful of his admirers. He doesn't want to "complicate things," he explains. But for the 1,100 LaBelle High School graduates he has put through Edison Community College, the 97-year-old widower has offered something very wonderful indeed.
He puts in the money -- about $5-million so far -- and lets the high school and college work out the details. Until he passed the thousand-student mark last September, 12 years after he first made the Isabella Curtis Scholarship available to every high school student in LaBelle, Curtis wouldn't even grant interviews to the local papers.
But now, carefully balancing his 6-foot-3, 146-pound frame in the passenger seat of his golf cart, Curtis is relishing an appreciative audience.
"Back in 1905, when I came into the world, people didn't speak English yet," Curtis tells 19-year-old Cassandra Stansley and her 18-year-old brother Teddy, both recipients of the Isabella Curtis Scholarship. Curtis' thin lips slowly stretch into a wide, toothy smile.
"Tell us a story," Cassandra teases him back.
"I'm only 16 years old," Curtis says, without missing a beat. "That's a story." This time, he laughs out loud.
Despite telltale signs of a long life -- skin browned with age spots, a hearing aid that fails to turn up the world loud enough, difficulty remembering what he's eaten for lunch -- Curtis clings to his stories, clear and resolute. They form a long slinking chain of moments and decisions that has wound its way through nearly a century, leading him from a Michigan mining town, across a continent, through an ocean, and finally to this rural citrus community thousands of miles away.
Resting on the edge of the Everglades and surrounded on all sides by pastures and citrus groves, LaBelle is a town of modest pastel homes, of handmade restaurant signs, of swing sets in gateless front yards. Wild grass seems lusher in LaBelle, bogs and streams more mystical, the blue horizon vast on all sides. But LaBelle is also a town with limits. Of the 850 students who attend LaBelle High School, barely 50 percent will graduate. Many are migrant farm workers' children, forced to drop out of school to follow the crops from state to state. Others stay in town, but work in the fields after school and on weekends.
For all of these young people -- the migrant workers, the middle class, the first-generation college-goers -- Curtis' generosity has helped widen limited educational horizons. A few years ago, less than 20 percent of LaBelle graduates went to college. Today, thanks to the Isabella Curtis Scholarship, the percentage is probably closer to 40, according to Sally Berg, Edison's director of services for Hendry and Glade counties. Students have studied nursing and business and education. Two-thirds have gone on to four-year colleges. And so many have returned to LaBelle that the town recently put up a sign thanking them for coming back to share their talents.
In a way, Curtis' relationship with the young people of LaBelle began long before he moved to the town in 1955. During his childhood growing up in Negaunee, Mich., Curtis worked from the age of 7, picking and selling blueberries.
His father was a coal-mine boss. When Curtis was 9, the mine caught fire. The captain flooded the burning mine shaft, even as Curtis' father cried out that the miners couldn't escape with the fire hoses beating down on them. When the captain still wouldn't relent, Curtis remembers, "my dad picked up the captain, held him over the shaft, and threatened to drop him." The men were allowed to exit, but Curtis' father lost his job until the men managed to circulate a petition demanding to "bring Jack back." Jack Curtis met death the next year, in an accident on a mine car, when Kenneth was 12.
The managers at the mine offered the boy a job and he was ready to take it.
"But my mother got hysterical," Curtis recalls. "She said, 'Your father was just killed in that mine; you finish your education."' To support the family, she went to work in a corset factory. At night, she darned socks and taught Curtis and his two brothers to read and tell time. During the frozen Michigan winters that followed, Curtis would crawl into his mother's bed for a half hour every evening to leave it warm for her.
Like many students in LaBelle, Curtis worked his way through high school, delivering well water to wealthy citizens. He sold the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal, mowed lawns and picked berries. Through all his teenage years, he never went on a date. Every cent went to his mother. When he graduated in 1922, he was offered a scholarship to the University of Michigan. He didn't take it.
"I wasn't interested," he says. "I wanted to get my mother out of that factory."
He spent the summer digging sewers, the winter building roads through the forests. Sixty hours a week. Thirty-five degrees below zero. The next year he moved to Detroit to work as a factory clerk for Chevrolet. In the evenings he studied accounting, and eventually took a pay cut for a transfer to the accounting department. He became a supervisor. Slowly, he saved his money. He invested. Then it was 1929. And on Black Tuesday, everything disappeared.
After the stock market crash, he remained with Chevrolet, and in 1936 applied for a transfer to Baltimore. That was where he found Isabella. Ten years his junior, she was an unobtrusive young woman who wore dark clothes and worked in the billing department he supervised.
"What caught my eye was the fact that she always turned out twice as much billing as everyone else," Curtis says. "That's the way to win the heart of a supervisor."
Christmastime arrived, snowy and cold. One evening, Curtis offered to drive three young women home after work. For efficiency purposes, he planned to drop Isabella off first. But she had other ideas. They parked in front of her house that evening.
"She told me she got her osculatory expertise by practicing on her brother," Curtis smiles. "I never believed her.
"And I wasn't in love with her," he adds. Not yet. He was a serious young man, still pursuing other dreams. He purchased a used oyster boat and began providing cruises back and forth to Fort McHenry, where Francis Scott Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner during the War of 1812. Curtis nearly went broke acquiring the government documents and liability insurance necessary to get the business approved.
With the little savings he had, he decided to sail to Florida that winter. For crew, he hired a boy who had never been on a boat. Curtis was a little nervous. But he spoke with an experienced sailor who assured him: "It's water all the way, ain't it?" The first day, 8 miles outside the Potomac, Curtis was knocked overboard. He was so embarrassed, treading in that cold, dark water in his boots and long underwear, that he didn't even call for help. When the young crewman finally pulled his shivering, wet captain on board, he asked if Curtis wanted to turn back.
"I just said goodbye to everybody a few hours ago," Curtis replied.
It was 1941 when Curtis made the return trip to Baltimore, alone. He arrived to find the harbor closed for war. With no possibility of offering national anthem tours at Fort McHenry, Curtis realized his second fortune was gone.
He decided that the fastest way to make money was to become an auditor. For the next 14 years, Curtis went on the road for the Coca-Cola Company. He lived out of his suitcase in Illinois and Lousiana and Montana and Wyoming. Isabella stayed in Baltimore, working and taking care of the oyster boat. Curtis told her she could see other suitors.
"I didn't want to keep her if she wanted someone else," he explains.
But she waited for him. And when he was sure he had enough money to offer her a solid home, Curtis came back to Baltimore and agreed to marry her. He was 47. She was 37. They sailed to Annapolis, where Isabella paid $3 for the marriage certificate.
"She waited 111/2 years until I married her," Curtis remembers. "I didn't even thank her that I know of. But I gave her half my money, and $500 of every $1,000 I earned from then on."
They set sail for Florida, eventually anchoring in Fort Myers. There, they found a man who told them he knew just the place they sought. He had a friend who had a sister who had a piece of land in LaBelle. The Curtises made the purchase over the phone. When Curtis retired three years later, in 1955, they moved to the town. Curtis began buying hundreds of acres in the community. He divided them up into ranchettes and riverfront lots and resold them.
As the couple became more established in LaBelle, Isabella helped found a public library. Curtis joined the Chamber of Commerce. He began asking around in the community. What did people want most? The answer came quickly. LaBelle's bank had gone broke in the 1930s. It was already 1962. Curtis thought the town had waited long enough.
Curtis and Isabella set up a card table in the LaBelle post office to solicit shareholders. Despite having retired, Curtis agreed to take on the presidency with no salary. But to form a bank, they also needed a CEO. Finally, Curtis found a man who had been forced to resign his position as manager of a local shoe store. The cashier had embezzled funds, and the man had been fired for failing to catch it. Curtis thought he deserved a second chance, and in 1963, brought the shoe-store manager on to run the newly formed Hendry County Bank.
"The man from the shoe store was good," Curtis remembers. "Although he got a little too close with his secretary."
In 1970, the Curtises moved into their house on Fort Denaud Street. They dug out the huge rock pit in the 82-acre back yard, and the gaping hole that remained filled with water, fish and sea turtles. They planted eucalyptus and jacaranda and rosewood and orange trees. Isabella confided to her husband that she had always wanted to finish school. In 1972, at the age of 57, Isabella went back to night school to earn her high school diploma.
Neither of them spent much. If Isabella wanted a pearl necklace, she bought a fake one. On one occasion, Curtis brought a gray dress home for his wife. When she put it on the next day, she received a compliment about her clothing for the first time in her life. Her family had grown up on welfare, and she couldn't bring herself to waste money. The 35 years they lived together were the happiest ones of his life and, he thinks, of her life as well.
In 1986, Isabella was diagnosed with a congenital heart problem. A year and a half later, she passed away, leaving him with all the money she had saved for an emergency that never came.
Curtis didn't need the money. He hasn't bought anything new to wear in decades. He doesn't have children or grandchildren, and none of his nieces and nephews has ever asked him for a favor.
He started giving money to national charities, such as the Salvation Army, until he realized he couldn't see the fruits of his philanthropy. And then, in 1989, he endowed a scholarship for the graduates of LaBelle High School to attend Edison, the only college in the area. So long as they earned a C average, recipients of the Isabella Curtis Scholarship would receive full tuition and books for two years, plus $350 a semester for travel expenses. Thirteen students took advantage of his offer that year. But soon, the numbers began to increase to the current level -- more than a hundred per year. When the interest on the endowment isn't enough to cover all incoming students, Curtis pulls out his checkbook.
On Sept. 7, 2001, 1,000 students gathered in the auditorium of LaBelle High School for the first pep rally of the season. The band played. The cheerleaders performed a special cheer. Curtis was the guest of honor.
This past spring, the LaBelle Chamber of Commerce elected Curtis Man of the Year. The Florida House of Representatives drafted a resolution honoring him for his philanthropy. Gov. Jeb Bush honored him as one of Florida's Points of Light. Curtis makes other donations as well -- a vintage 1958 Rolls-Royce to Hope Hospice, $240,000 to the no-kill LaBelle Animal Shelter, and $5,000 a year plus bank stock to the library Isabella helped found.
His routine doesn't vary much. At 8:30 a.m., he takes a half-mile walk around the lake with his housekeeper, Ruby Hansen. Since he broke his hip last December, he has begun using a cane. He spends 20 minutes in the sun, then Ruby drives him around in the golf cart. While she plants and sprays and weeds, he reads the large-print westerns Ruby checks out of the library for him. At 3 p.m. every day, they feed the carps and blue gill and soft-shell turtles that have come to flourish in Curtis' care.
But today, his routine temporarily interrupted, Curtis is talking to Cassandra and Teddy about the crucial role tai chi plays in his life. Before he began exercising, he tells them, he had been hospitalized 12 times for problems with his prostate, his bladder, his stomach, his heart.
"It's not normal aging to get rid of pains," he says. "But I did. I don't have an ache or pain in my body."
Then, while the two students discuss their pursuit of careers in teaching and biology, Curtis pulls aside Tracey Galloway, the woman who administers the Isabella Curtis Scholarship and brings him chocolate brownies every other month. Curtis poses the same two questions to Galloway that he asks her twice each year, a month before the semester begins at Edison.
How many students will be partaking of the scholarship this term? Do they need anything else from him? Because, he reminds her, he always has more to give.
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