Lamar Louise Curry taught U.S. history in Miami-Dade County schools for 35 years — and lived it for more than a century.
Born in Key West on Dec. 11, 1906, she moved with her parents to Miami in 1916, graduated from Miami Senior HIgh in 1923, then Florida Southern College in 1927. Taught in the county school system until 1962, all but three years at her alma mater.
She heard statesman William Jennings Bryan speak, saw her mother off to elegant tea parties at Henry Flagler’s grand Royal Palm hotel and met the teenage Charles Lindbergh who was learning to fix airplanes in Miami.
Educating was in her DNA, thanks to generations of Methodist ministers in her lineage, a grandfather who headed the University of Florida's Agricultural Experiment Station in Lake City, and an intellectually curious mother who held two 1920s-era patents on devices still in use: a sewing-machine motor “stop,’’ and the sleeve covering an automobile’s stick-shift base.
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An astute observer of the South Florida real estate market, Miss Curry, as everyone called her, sold off her father’s vast holdings at propitious times, enabling a life of dignified luxury and quiet philanthropy.
She was the privileged only child of landholder Alfred Bates Curry, whose English forebears migrated to Spanish Wells, Eleuthera, and his wife, Stobo DePass Curry, whose Dutch ancestors settled colonial Virginia.
She died at her stately Coral Gables home on Dec. 3, eight days short of her 106th birthday.
She was, said longtime friend Audrey Ross, “a genteel Southern lady, the true ‘steel magnolia’ if there ever has been one. She lived her life very carefully, with few regrets.’’
She declined to marry, once telling Ross: “ ‘I never met a man who measured up to my father.’ But I’m sure she had a lot of suitors. She was a beautiful woman.’’
The Curry family’s legacy includes commercial developments, including Buttonwood Bay in Key Largo — on which Miss Curry imposed tight, conservation-minded deed restrictions — and Curry Hammock State Park in the Middle Keys.
But Miss Curry considered her greatest achievement to be the accomplishments of countless Miami High students whose intellects she prodded, including lawyers Robert Traurig and Donald Slesnick, the former Gables mayor.
“The main things I wanted to teach were how to study; to indoctrinate them in patriotism, loyalty, and understand that a good action would bring a good reaction, and likewise, a bad action a bad reaction,’’ she said in a 1986 University of Florida oral history. “I never promised them anything unless I could and did keep the promise.’’
“Nobody who came out of Miss Curry’s class could be accused of being historical illiterates,’’ said Bob Graham, former U.S. senator and Florida governor, one of many students who remained close to their teacher until her death.
“She expected you to know the date when the First World War ended, but was mainly concerned that you understood the rationale and major themes of American history,’’ Graham recalled. “She was a wonderful storyteller. She taught history as an ongoing series of stories about human beings, not just dry recitations of wars and other hallmarks of history courses.’’
He vividly recalls his first day in her class in 1953.
“She was going over class rolls and putting a name to a face in alphabetical order. She said, ‘Robert: You see that desk by the blackboard? That’s where your brother Philip sat. Your sister Mary sat there and your brother William sat there. They were all very good students and I expect you to be a very good student.’ ’’
She was, he also noted, “a big Elvis fan.’’
Former Miami News editor Howard Kleinberg, a Miami High alum, called Miss Curry “an icon.’’ He interviewed her for his book about the school and kept up with her until her death.
“She remembered everybody she ever had in class and her mind was beyond sharp even after 100,’’ he said. “She was still correcting people on their errors — guys in their 60s and 70s...A lot of alumni events rotated around her.’’
For her 100th birthday in 2006, friends gave a luncheon at the Riviera County Club during which she was presented 100 red roses.
“She called me the next day and said there were 104,’’ Kleinberg said.
Historic preservationist Joseph Fitzgerald, class of ’49, recalled that his brother told him to avoid Miss Curry’s class “because she expected her students to study.’’
At her funeral Friday at First Methodist Church of Coral Gables, The Rev. Thom Shafer noted that for all her propriety, Miss Curry was “very opinionated, and today is no exception.’’ She left four handwritten pages of instructions about the service, telling him to wear a suit.
After she retired, Miss Curry bought a plot of land in exclusive Gables Estates from its developer, Arthur Vining Davis, who lived across the street.
She commissioned an Antebellum-style residence, which she filled with French Provincial furniture and custom-woven Oriental rugs, heavy brocade drapes, needlepoint pillows and gilt-framed oil paintings. She installed an elevator, and an imposing, hand-carved marble mantle.
“They added butler’s quarters about 10 years later,’’ recalled Bill Richmond, whose father, a contractor, built the house.
Various shades of blue dominate the decor.
“It was her favorite color,’’ said Audrey Ross. “She used to say, ‘Any color will do as long as it’s blue.’ ’’
With live-in companions, she cared for her mother and her mother’s twin, her Aunt Lamar, and doted on a succession of white toy poodles.
A houseman chauffeured Miss Curry to church and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, to meetings of the Coral Gables Garden Club and the Prologue Society (for history buffs), to Miami High alumni lunches and class reunions, and to regular beauty-shop appointments.
At Prologue, “she would ask the most wonderful questions,’’ said Miami historian Arva Moore Parks.
She gave generously to favored causes. Among them: her church, Florida Southern, and the College of the Ozarks, one of her mother’s great interests, which awarded Miss Curry an honorary doctoral degree.
After her mother and aunt died in the ’60s, Miss Curry travelled in style — five round-the-world trips on the QE2, all in her favorite cabin — collecting precious objets, tourist trinkets and a trove of priceless memories.
In 1993, she dedicated a flower garden and a bronze plaque in the southwest corner of Bayfront Park, honoring her parents, who owned large tracts of Brickell-area property and helped the city of Miami assemble 62 acres for the park just before the 1926 hurricane.
In 2003, the Miami-Dade School Board named Lamar Louise Curry Middle School, 15750 SW 47th St., in her honor.
A passionate steward of both her family’s and South Florida’s traditions, Miss Curry was serving as honorary chairwoman of the “Save Old Miami High School Building” committee at the time.
“It would be a sad thing for Miami to lose,”" Miss Curry told The Miami Herald. “It is a link to our past that we must preserve.”
She shared her own past in the UF oral history, which runs 57 pages.
She begins with a maternal ancestor, the Queen of Holland’s grand nephew, who settled in Virginia in the early 1700s. The family ran a South Carolina cotton plantation, held slaves, sent its sons to The Citadel and to fight for the Confederacy.
In 1866, her grandmother’s brother “divided his lands in South Carolina and gave each one of his former slave families land and livestock, and he moved to his [Marion County] Florida plantation,’’ she said. “That is why we became Floridians.’’
She talked about how Miami was “a pretty little medium-sized town’’ when the family arrived, “clean and very attractive...The people were friendly, and we enjoyed it very much.’’
Her father predicted that Miami would become “the largest city on the East Coast south of Baltimore, she said. “Also, it was going to be the gateway to all Latin America. People looked at him in amazement in those days when he said that.’’
Among his early land purchases: a 12-grave plot at Woodlawn Cemetery. Miss Curry was buried there on Friday alongside her parents and her Aunt Lamar.
To read her UF oral history, go to http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00006424/00001.