News & Opinion » Urban Journal

Ted Curtis’s legacy


With the death of Ted Curtis on April 7, Rochester lost one of its most devoted citizens. And this publication lost an important friend and supporter.

“Unique” is a mild adjective to apply to Ted. He was a room-filling character: a smart, funny, determined, confident, and seemingly boundlessly optimistic man with a big, wonderfully distinctive voice.

He was a fifth-generation Rochesterian. He was a devoted family man. As a young man, he was an actual, real-life spy. For the CIA. He spent some time as an executive at Kodak. And at RIT. He was briefly Rochester’s city manager. He served as head of the Greater Rochester Visitors Association, was a trustee of the George Eastman House, was on the board of advisors of Pathstone, was active in the city’s expansive Sesquicentennial celebration.
Ted Curtis was devoted to the City of Rochester. - PROVIDED PHOTO
  • Ted Curtis was devoted to the City of Rochester.

And his intense love of the Erie Canal led to the creation of Corn Hill Navigation and its boat, the Sam Patch, which has taken thousands of people on tours on the Erie Canal. That effort has done more than provide a nice ride and some history for Sam Patch passengers. It has greatly increased public awareness of the canal and the river and the need to protect them.

At Saturday’s service of celebration for Ted at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where he had served as a leader, it was a full house – a tribute, as the Reverend Robert Picken said, to Ted. It was also a tribute to him, I think, that a number of current and former Democratic officials were there to honor this former Republican city official.

Anyone who knew Ted can tell lots of stories about him. My earliest memory of him is an incident that exemplifies his devotion to the City of Rochester. It was the late 1960’s, and Bill and I had bought a house in what was then a “neighborhood in transition.” Far too many apartments were owned by absentee landlords who seemed to care little about zoning regulations or upkeep. But the neighborhood was attracting young families who wanted to live in the city, not the suburbs.

As we tried to stabilize the neighborhood, one of the battles we fought was the growing perception that the city wasn’t a good place to live. And among the perpetrators of that myth, we discovered, were some Eastman Kodak officials, who were encouraging new employees to avoid the city when they bought a home. Bill, who was president of our neighborhood association at the time, called Ted.

Ted was furious, and he took our complaint as high up in the company as he could.

The general exodus to the suburbs continued, of course, but I’d like to think Ted changed some minds at Kodak. And at the least, knowing that a Kodak executive was on our side gave courage and hope to those of us fighting for our neighborhood.

Also an indication of Ted’s commitment to the city was his participation in decades of efforts detailing Rochester’s problems and urging community-wide action.

The Urban Policy Conference, the Greater Rochester Intergovernmental Panel, Goals for a Greater Rochester: these were critically important efforts by diverse groups of citizens. And Ted served on every one of them.

He was also a dreamer. And his dreams weren’t small. Some years ago, he had a zany idea about some kind of mechanism that would get boats past the city’s waterfalls. The purpose: to enable boats to navigate the river from the canal all the way to the lake. He seemed sure it would work.

“Make no little plans,” Chicago urban planner Daniel Burnham is supposed to have said; “they have no magic to stir men’s blood…. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”

Ted aimed high, in both hope and work. And he kept his faith in Rochester. That he did so for all those years is a testament to his love for this community and his belief in its possibilities. All of us have a responsibility to continue that work.