Officer down

Thirty-five years ago, Jesse Curry was Dallas' respected, popular police chief. Then Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, and Curry became just one more victim of the Kennedy assassination.

Curry's name appears in nearly every book written about the assassination, but he is often portrayed as a tragic figure or, more simply, an idiot. He's known as the police chief who let the president leave Dallas in a pine box--as the man who let Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald in his own building.

Author Jim Bishop ends The Day Kennedy Was Shot, his oft-cited 1968 minute-by-minute account of the Kennedy assassination, by concluding that "Chief Jesse Curry wanted to hide from the assassination," and that "the chief did not know a great deal about the case." In his 1996 book Assignment: Oswald, FBI special agent James Hosty, who began investigating Oswald even before the assassination, claims that Curry and the Dallas police were so ashamed of Oswald's murder that "they decided to cover up" the truth about how Ruby got into the basement.

In some ways, Jesse Curry is a lost victim of the Kennedy and Oswald assassinations. Many of his old friends and colleagues explain that Curry was never the same after the killings. They speak of a depression that set in; more than one hints at a drinking problem, though Gene insists that's not true. Yet they all agree on one thing: The deaths of Kennedy and Oswald destroyed his career and shortened his life.

John Kennedy's blood got on everyone. Jesse Curry was soaked in it.

Jesse Curry never wanted to be a cop. He was, quite literally, the son of a preacher man who moved to Dallas with his family a few months after Jesse was born on October 3, 1913. His father actually served as a police officer here, but his tenure was short-lived: He entered the seminary and became an ordained Baptist minister.

For a while, young Jesse thought he wanted to go into his Uncle Roy's trucking business, even dropped out of high school at Crozier Tech to work for him--did this despite the fact that he was a football star, an all-district tackle who led his team to the state finals against Greenville High School in 1933.

"But he wrecked one of Roy's trucks," Gene says. "My uncle always gave Dad the worst jobs to encourage him to go back to school, which he did." It was at Crozier Tech that Jesse met the woman who would become his first wife.

After graduating from high school in 1933, Jesse briefly studied optometry, then went into the dry-cleaning business as a pants-presser. It was a job he didn't much like, perhaps because he was not very good at it.

In the spring of 1936, he found out the Dallas police were hiring temporary officers during the state's 100th anniversary celebration. So on May 1, 1936, he joined the force as part of the so-called "Texas Centennial" gang, for which he drew a paycheck of $90 a month--which beat the hell out of the money he was making at the dry cleaners. He was asked to stay on with the force after the Centennial, though his son says that Jesse was not the kind of man who fantasized about wearing a gun and a badge. "He joined the force to earn a living, and then he grew into it."

Jesse became, in the end, a career cop: Not long after Gene was born in 1937, Jesse was assigned to the motorcycle division (making a whopping $150 a month), where he became known as something of a daredevil: In 1939, while answering a shooting call, Curry crashed his bike into the side of an escaping felon's car, breaking a finger on his left hand and damaging his spinal column. One family member says that Curry--lying in the street, bruised and bloodied--held his gun on the robbers till back-up arrived.

"He was very determined," says Curry's son-in-law Fred Hollis Jr. "Another time, he chased a bank robber to a second floor and jumped off the second floor to catch him and broke both his ankles."

On September 19, 1942, Curry was granted a leave of absence from the force to join the Army Air Corps as an enlisted reserve, which Curry told the Warren Commission in 1964 was "open to people who were over combat age [to serve] in the Air Force." But the Army disbanded the air corps less than a year after Curry joined, claiming it had too many pilots. Curry flew--loved it, in fact--but never got the chance to fly overseas, only getting as far as Meacham Field in Fort Worth. The Army offered the members of the Air Corps the chance to fight as foot soldiers or return to their previous jobs. Curry accepted the latter, and in July 1943, received his honorable discharge and returned to the Dallas police force.

In August 1945, Curry was sent by the force to the prestigious Northwestern University Traffic Institute in Evanston, Illinois. This was police college, where the department's "better men" went to receive advanced training in traffic control and accident prevention. It was here that he realized his police job was no longer a temporary one. Curry returned to Dallas an invaluable officer, someone educated in the ways of law enforcement. He also returned with Bessie "Bea" Wilhelm, who worked at the college and became the woman for whom he left his first wife. "They just fell in love," says Gene, who admits he was "devastated" by his father's decision to divorce his mother.

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