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LEGENDS OF AUBURN

Ormie King: Paying tribute to Auburn softball legend 'Monk' Curtin (Part 1)

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Today’s article is the first of a two-part series about the life of Jack “Monk” Curtin. Today’s first part is the eulogy written by his good friend Joe Brechue Jr.:

How can I properly put into words the many qualities and attributes of a man I have known since I was nine years old? How can I summarize a life filled with so many accomplishments? We all know of Jack Curtin’s successes on the athletic fields. We all have vivid memories of his achievements. I’m sure that many of you here today shared in or witnessed those achievements firsthand, but before one can even discuss athletic accomplishments, I believe one must first mention what I feel was Mr. Curtin’s greatest quality. This would be his strong belief in “family.”

From my earliest recollection it seems that every time you entered the Curtins' home, two things were a given: 1. Mrs. Curtin would undoubtedly be cooking something delicious and she would not simply offer you something to eat, she would insist that you eat; 2. Mr. Curtin would always be there to make you feel welcome, maybe to sit and watch a ballgame or maybe just to talk. I remember how much he enjoyed WGN out of Chicago so he could watch the Cubs and his favorite show, “Murder She Wrote.” His son John would often kid his dad that he watched the Chicago news so that he would know what was going to happen here the next day.

You can’t begin to discuss Jack Curtin’s life without mentioning first and foremost his beloved wife Emily. What a great pair they made. Early in their marriage, Mrs. Curtin saw a beautiful statue of “The Blessed Mother” in a downtown store window. “How I would love to have that statue of that beautiful lady,” she remarked. Jack never said a word. He was young and not working steady, so they were by no means wealthy, but he saved every spare penny and that Christmas he surprised Emily with the statue she loved. To this day the statue stands in their bedroom. The sight of them at their kitchen table trimming vegetables and peeling potatoes getting ready for that weekend’s parties is a memory stamped in my mind forever. Their house was always open – Christmas, Easter, birthdays, weddings. It seemed that everyone ended up at the Curtins'. They always made you feel welcome and the house was so open and so full of life. Even through Mrs. Curtin’s illnesses later in life, the traditions continued through Jack’s children. Santa has never missed a Christmas Eve.

Jack took great pride in his children – just mention John and Cindy, or Mary and Steve, and his eyes would light up. His grandchildren, Dan and Emily and Beth, have grown into fine young people. I see so much of Jack in them. He enjoyed traveling to Michigan, North Carolina and Florida to visit family. On Thanksgivings, friends and family would gather at the Curtins' for a great meal and then to watch some football. Mr. Curtin, his brother Don, and his brother-in-law Harry Taber, would bet a silver dollar on the games every year, but it always seemed that Don couldn’t remember the point spreads and always seemed to win the bets.

As I stated earlier, I first met Mr. Curtin when I was 9 years old. He and Mr. DeLorenzo were our Pony League coaches. It was they who upon observing my baseball abilities decided quite quickly that my only hope was to be a catcher. They were great coaches. We won a lot of games, but what I remember most is how much fun we had. Everyone played and at the end of the year we had a team picnic at the lake. During one year, “Dudly” Walsh, another outstanding softball pitcher, broke his ankle in a game at the Y-Field and was out for the season. Jack was retired from pitching at this time. I remember Mrs. Curtin telling me how a couple of players from the Skyline team came down to the Polish Falcons asking Jack to come back and finish the season pitching for them. She wasn’t too happy about it, but she knew Jack’s answer would be “yes”.

True to form, his first game back he pitched a no-hitter. So that is what we would do after our games – we’d go to the Y-Field and watch softball. But it wasn’t until years later that I realized just what a great player Jack “Monk” Curtin really was. You had to get the stories from other people because Jack would never talk about himself. He was as humble a man as I have ever met. Wherever I would go to play softball, people would always mention “Monk” if they knew you were from Auburn. One time I was playing softball in Rochester. We got to the park early and were starting to loosen up. A lady came to the fence and asked if we were the Auburn team. We said yes and she asked if we had ever heard of "Monk" Curtin. We told her yes, of course. She then asked me if I had time to go with her for a minute or two. I went with her and she showed me a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings. She then told me that her husband was Harold “Shifty” Gears, the first person ever inducted into the National Softball Hall of Fame, then she said, “Let me tell you what my husband said about Monk Curtin.” She said, “Monk was not only the greatest softball pitcher of all time, he was the nicest gentleman, too.”

Another time we were in Michigan watching the National Fast Pitch Open Class Championships. That day they were honoring the World Champion Dow Chemical Team from the 1950s and they were introduced at the game. Several of these players came up and said hello to Monk and shook his hand and talked softball with him. Finally, I asked Mr. Curtin how he knew these players. He said he could have pitched for them, but he was married and had a job and family in Auburn and he was happy. If I hadn’t asked him he wouldn’t have ever told me. That was Monk, almost embarrassed to talk about his accomplishments.

Thanks to the hard work of Ormie King, Billy Martin and others, Mr. Curtin was inducted into the New York State Softball Hall of Fame. Three busloads of friends, family and teammates accompanied Jack to his induction dinner in Binghamton. They said it was the largest turnout for one inductee that they’d ever seen. There is no doubt in my mind that “Monk” Curtin belongs in the National Softball Hall of Fame. I would often kid Mr. Curtin that he never struck me out, and he would respond by saying that he wished he could have played against me, he may have had a few hundred more strikeouts.

Some of my fondest memories of Mr. Curtin are from our Tuesday excursions. Every Tuesday I would pick him up, and in the summer the day started with a round of golf. One day we were playing at Meadowbrook Golf Course. Two of us were already on the first tee and Monk and Spike Kelly were about to cross the road in their carts to join us. Suddenly a van came out of nowhere, speeding past us. Monk was driving the cart and I don’t know how he stopped and how he and Spike avoided getting hit. For the first three or four holes Jack was so shook up he couldn’t hit the ball at all. He was really struggling. We came to the tee on a short par 3 and Jack’s tee shot went about 30 yards. Still shook up, he looked at his partner and good friend. “What do you think Spike?” he asked, looking for some advice and help. Spike said, “I think you may have been better off getting hit by that truck!” It was as hard as I ever saw Jack laugh. Spike got him so good that he couldn’t play the next couple holes because he couldn’t stop laughing. What a great time we had. After golf, we would work our way back home, stopping for a few refreshments. You all know that Monk enjoyed a cold refreshment now and then. If we got back a little late, Jack would tell Emily that we had been at “Vespers.” I don’t think she believed us.

It was hard to see Jack’s health fail in his later years. We all remember him from his playing days. He went through a lot, but I never heard him or any of his family complain. It was great to see him honored at the Y-Field reunion and to have the clubhouse dedicated in his name. I think that meant more to him than any award he’d ever received. When I spoke to him that day he said he couldn’t believe how many people showed up, how many friends and teammates were there that he hadn’t seen in so long. He was presented with a beautiful plaque, surrounded by his friends at the field where he had accomplished so many great things. It was this award, amongst all that he had ever received, that he asked John and Mary to be sure to hang on his living room wall. I spoke with him Wednesday evening, he said that friends were still stopping by and how happy that made him, talking about the old times playing ball. He said he was feeling much better and was ready to go to therapy for his back, and then on Thursday he was gone. Maybe he was hurting more than we knew, as it was not his nature to complain. It was as if he made sure that he attended that Y-Field reunion and that made him so happy, so proud. I wish I had the chance to say goodbye – to thank him for all he’d done for me. In a way, however, that’s what we’re all doing here today. We’re celebrating the life of a man who lived life to the fullest. His memory will stay with me forever.

And so if you say the name Jack “Monk” Curtin to me, what will I think of? Class, humility, dignity ... a great family man. A man of great faith and the highest moral character. I will think of a man who enjoyed a good cigar, good food, good drinks and the company of good friends. I will remember how he loved good black licorice. How could he throw a softball so fast, and a bowling ball so slow? I remember how he made great Kapusta and the best chili I’ve ever had. I’ll remember a man who could throw a softball like no one before and no one since. But most of all when I think of him I will simply smile and remember how good people felt just to be around him. I’m sure each of you could rise and tell of the great memories you have of Jack.

And so today whenever you might feel a little sad, reach back into those memories and just smile. I’m sure Jack is smiling now. He’s been reunited with his Emily. She probably has him scalding cabbage as we speak. And I’m sure there’s a softball game in heaven tonight. They’ll all be there: Chesty and Henry, Brains and Danny and Hawker, Swifty and Snapper and all the rest, for pitching tonight is Monk Curtin. It may be a 21-inning marathon, he may hit the first batter and then strike out the next 21 in a row, but if you ask me I’m betting on a perfect game.

There’s a softball game in heaven tonight and now they’ll get to see Jack “Monk” Curtin, the greatest of them all.

Ormie King's column appears Sundays in The Citizen and he can be reached by email at ormie5king@gmail.com.

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