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.

In 1946, Curry advanced to the rank of lieutenant, and he assumed command of the motorcycle division; for less than a year, he also worked as a plain-clothes detective in the vice squad. Gene recalls that he would often go to work with his father, especially on weekends, when Jesse had custody of his son. Gene talks with great affection about the afternoons they spent together chasing bank robbers and bootleggers. "Nowadays, that wouldn't be allowed. Can you imagine?" Gene laughs. "But if I wanted to see him and he was workin', that's what happened."

In 1948, Jesse was promoted to captain and reassigned to the traffic division. Shortly after that, he was moved to the DPD's training school. Despite a degenerative back condition that caused him enormous pain, Curry continued in law enforcement, and in 1951 was sent to Washington to attend the FBI's National Academy, where he, in essence, learned how to become a leader. No Dallas police officer had ever before been sent to both Northwestern and the FBI academy. In what would prove, years later, a most ironic footnote, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent Dallas Chief Carl Hansson a personal note upon Curry's graduation from the FBI academy on November 16, 1951, that concluded: "You may be assured that we were very pleased to have Captain Curry with us." Twelve years later, Hoover would go out of his way to make sure Curry paid for the sin of allowing Lee Oswald to be murdered under his watch.

In 1951, Curry was promoted to inspector and assigned to head the department's training facilities, and just two years later, Hansson tapped him to become assistant chief of police--Hansson's "right-hand man," as City Manager Elgin Crull would later refer to him. In 17 years, Curry had gone from being a part-timer in need of a paycheck to part of Hansson's "inner circle."

Yet there could not have been two men more dissimilar than Hansson and Curry. "Hansson was strictly an administrator and a disciplinarian," says Jim Leavelle, a former detective on the force--and the man made immortal when he was handcuffed to Oswald for the ill-fated transfer from police headquarters to the county jail. "A lot of the people [on the force] disagreed with the way he handled the department...Curry was a little easier where discipline was concerned. But he had more time on the street than Hansson."

When Hansson stepped down as chief on January 20, 1960, after 15 years in the position, Curry was chosen as his successor. "It was like replacing Tom Landry," says Jim Ewell, a former police reporter for The Dallas Morning News "But Curry was so far removed from Hansson's overpowering leadership, it was almost a relief for a lot of cops."

Curry grew more secure with his leadership role after September 6, 1961, when Dallas' public schools were desegregated without a hint of violence. Indeed, things went so well, President Kennedy called Dallas a "dramatic demonstration" of "law and order prevailing [and] responsible, level-headed leadership [welding] a whole community together to solve a difficult problem in race relations."

Ironically, noted SMU professor Darwin Payne, reported in his 1995 book, Big D, that Curry had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. But that would have been impossible: Curry would have been only about 10 years old at the time Payne insisted Curry was running around town in white sheets.

Rather than racial bigotry, Curry appeared to preach just the opposite. In 1962, Curry and Glen King, who served as Curry's administrative assistant and as Dallas police chief from 1979 till 1982, wrote a book titled Race Tensions and Police. The book offered a blueprint on how law-enforcement agencies could prevent and disarm "the racial strains that characterize America and its communities." In their 135-page treatise--an expanded version of a training manual King had penned for Dallas police--Curry and King wrote of skin color being just that, "only skin deep." They warned against "tabloid thinking," cautioned against prejudice, and insisted "that intelligence is in direct relation to a person's social and cultural environment, and is not dependent on racial differences."

"My father was defined, I think, by his absolute fairness," says Gene Curry. "He was totally fair and totally without prejudice. Those two things made him ahead of his time."

Jesse Curry's career might well have been defined by that triumphant moment of racial harmony. Dallas had been desegregated, and Curry had kept the peace. But two years later, John Kennedy decided to come to Dallas, and that changed everything.

During those three horrible days in November of 1963, Chief Curry was on television more than any actor. Cameras followed him as though he were a movie star--years before, he had even looked the part, like Broderick Crawford in a detective's plain clothes. He never did lose his football hero's build. Even in old black-and-white photos, he looks Technicolor. But those are the pictures taken long before John Kennedy came to Dallas--when Curry was a young cop on the beat, before the weight of the world fell on top of him.

In 1969, Curry published a book in which he tried to explain, with several years' worth of hindsight, the events of November 1963. Some would say he was trying to excuse himself from the tragedy, trying to deflect blame. But the book--cumbersomely titled Retired Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry Reveals His Personal JFK Assassination File--reads more like a man's attempt to come to grips with his past. "The events and evidence must be allowed to speak for themselves," he wrote, "and people must form their own conclusions."

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