In the spring of 1977, my maternal grandfather was dying of cancer, and my Favorite Mother was going out to State College to be with him during this sad time. My Favorite Younger Sister was only seven, and she couldn’t be left alone in the house, nor would she be welcome all day at the hospital. So your pal Mojo was pulled out of the eighth grade early to be a professional babysitter for a while.
I remember the year because my grandfather ended up dying on 7/7/77 which is easy enough to remember. I also remember it because every now and then the rest of the family would make the eight-hour drive to visit us, and on one of these happy occasions me and my Favorite Brother went to see a new movie that had just opened, a little doohicky called STAR WARS. Which pretty much ruled our lives for the next year or so, but I digress.
I was left to my own devices for hours at a stretch, sort of looked-in-on by my grandmother’s elderly next door neighbor. Many of the residents of the neighborhood were retired Penn State faculty, so we didn’t have any kids our age to play with even if we were allowed to go outside. Which we weren’t. Mrs. Hill (the neighbor) would pop by now and then, and my Favorite Mother usually came home for lunch, but in the meantime we were under the STRICTEST ORDERS not to let anyone else in the house. So I spent most of the time alternately playing with and torturing my Favorite Younger Sister. But that’s another admission for another time.
One day this very nice elderly lady came to the door with a pan of food. I don’t remember what it was, but I was to tell my grandmother that “Dr. and Mrs. Curry were thinking of her.” I dutifully relayed the information when the adults came home, and we enjoyed the food. And then came the time to return the pan. My mother sent me to run this simple errand. I had never been to the Curry’s house, but it was diagonally across the backyard. All I had to do was hop the zigzag rail fence, skip through twenty feet or so of trees, and I was there. And I was to come right back.
Mrs. Curry had other ideas when she answered the door. She was a lovely lady. I was invited in and fussed over, and I was eventually taken to a back room where her husband sat in a chair with a blanket on his lap. Mrs. Curry explained that I was “Wallace’s granddaughter who had come to visit”. He smiled and nodded, and I was told to sit down. Whereupon Mrs. Curry left to go do something.
So here I am, maybe fourteen, sitting across the room from this elderly gentleman. He was nice enough, for a stranger. As a way of introduction he explained that he and Wallace (that would be my grandfather) both used to teach at Penn State. My grandfather, I must brag, taught forestry, which I thought was a most marvelous excuse to go hiking about the woods and getting paid for it. So I asked my new friend if he, too, taught forestry.
“No,” said Dr. Curry, “I’m in the math department.”
“Oh,” said I, and strove to politely hide my supreme disappointment. But being a kid up against a smart person in their seventies, I suspect he suspected something from my flat-tire response, for that was the last he mentioned the subject.
Instead we talked politely about outdoorsy things. He was smart, kind and courteous, and I likewise tried to be polite, so we spent a few awkward minutes looking for something a fourteen year old girl and a seventy-plus male stranger might have in common. My grandparents had a resident cardinal who came and pecked at his reflection in their window, and when I mentioned this Dr. Curry’s eyes lit up and he asked, “Do you like birds?”
Oh, dear, did that ever open the floodgates! It turns out that my new math weenie friend was an absolute bird FIEND. We started talking birds, and the time just FLEW by. Turns out birds were almost Dr. Curry’s undoing—he ended up nearly missing his own wedding because he went out that morning to watch ducks and “lost track of the time”. He showed up at the church horribly late, plastered up to his armpits in mud. Mrs. Curry popped by during this anecdote and rolled her eyes at the memory. It was probably close to fifty years ago, so I suspect she had since forgiven him, but the two laughed and laughed as if it happened yesterday.
They were utterly charming and I could have spent the entire day with them. But eventually there was a knock at the door. It was my Favorite Mother, wondering where I had gone off to. She was invited in, of course, and she was fussed over and we all talked about my grandfather’s condition and what a nice man HE was and what a shame it all was. Eventually I was pulled away from my new birder friend, with promises to return, etc. I don’t recall if I ever went back, however, for my grandfather died soon after. It was a rather sad time. We moved back home, and I was happy to be home, I must admit.
But back to the Currys. I followed my Favorite Mother home, and once we were clear of the Curry’s house she asked, “What on EARTH were you talking about for so long with Dr. Curry?” So I breathlessly attempted to relay to her the Importance of Finding Another Birder, and how it was so awfully nice to talk shop. I was really jazzed, so I was going on and on about birds and Dr. Curry and what a great guy he was and how he nearly missed his wedding because of the ducks and all that stuff. I realize it is hard to imagine our Beloved Mojo as a breathless non-stop-talking teenaged girl, but my poor mother got an absolute earful of gibber coming home.
My Favorite Mother finally said, “When we were little Dr. Curry used to walk around the neighborhood muttering mathematical problems to himself. Freaked us kids out. I never got him. Apparently in Europe they think he’s some sort of genius, but I never knew exactly what he did, except it was something to do with math. I couldn’t understand why you would stay there and talk to him, to be honest.”
“He likes BIRDS, Mom!” I responded snottily, immediately coming to my new friend’s defense. And that was the end of that. Dr. Curry had effortlessly transformed from Scary Strange Old Guy to Coolest Guy EVER, all by virtue of our mutual feathered friends.
And while Mojo’s happy experience has since led her to meet even more Coolest People Ever, Dr. Haskell Curry holds an especially fond place in my memory, if only for his kindness. It takes some guy to sit with a surly teen in the first place, let alone win her so totally and utterly over. He was one of the few utterly delightful “grownups” I had ever met at the time. I could have spent the rest of the day there, talking birds with the man. I suppose math people are like that, too, when they get together and talk about math.
Why do I bring this up? Because I’ve decided to take up studying math again. And while surfing the Internet, looking up decent study materials, my memories got jostled, all that math stuff, and I ended up Googling my friend Dr. Curry. And it turns out he warrants his own Wikipedia page. Check it out! I had NO IDEA who this person was, other than being my grandfather’s backyard neighbor. And a really nice guy. Apparently he really WAS a jeen-yus, as well.
You’ll notice, however, there’s not a whisper about how much he liked birds. Which I find sad. And I realize, that’s the shame behind people saying you’re a genius. “Genius” cubbyholes you as badly as any other label, huh? Haskell Curry was certainly a genius, to go by what other people have written about him. I don’t know about that. All I know is, he was a heckuva nice person. I always remember our brief time together, over thirty years ago, with great fondness. The man loved birds. THAT’s what made him a genius, in my heart. Oh, and something about that math stuff he was doing, too, I guess. But mostly it was the birds.
You see, people? This is why Mojo should never write Wikipedia pages for people. Go ahead, be a genius, win acclaim, make your peers go “wow”. But treat another person with kindness—-now, THAT is what wins Mojo’s heart, every time. Therein lies the true genius of the man. A quiet fact that history shall always overlook.