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John A. Curry, first Northeastern graduate to serve as university’s president, dies at 88

By the time Dr. Curry, pictured in 1995, became Northeastern’s fifth president, he was already a longtime administrator there, having served as director of admissions, vice president for administration, and executive vice president.KREITER, SUZANNE GLOBE STAFF PHO

John A. Curry, an educator everyone knew as Jack, had an expansive understanding of how students progressed from their first classroom to their college graduation when he was named president of Northeastern University in 1989.

At the time of his inauguration, he was thought to be the only university president alive in the nation who had begun his career teaching at an elementary school and then taught at every other level — middle school, high school, and college — before leading a major institution of higher education.

He also was the first Northeastern graduate to serve as its president.

“I had a wonderful career there,” he told the Globe in 2000. “I’m very proud that I am the only alumnus — out of 140,000 alumni — who became president of the university.”

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Dr. Curry, who began his Northeastern career as a student co-op in the mid-1950s and stepped down as president in 1996, died April 21 in his Saugus home of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 88.

“He was a damned good president, let me tell you,” said Michael S. Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor who taught at Northeastern, which hosts the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.

“I thoroughly enjoyed working with him,” Dukakis said. “Northeastern came miles under his leadership.”

By the time Dr. Curry became Northeastern’s fifth president, he was already a longtime administrator there, having served as director of admissions, vice president for administration, and executive vice president.

Taking over at a time of declining enrollment and funding, he adjusted the university’s identity, trimming faculty and staff and overseeing a significant change in enrollment. About 25,000 undergraduate and graduate students attended when he left in 1996, the Globe reported, down from a peak of about 36,000.

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“I like to think we face our problems head-on,” he had told the Globe in 1993, in the midst of realigning Northeastern’s goals. He added that “we’ve set a vision for the future — a smaller, but better, university.”

During those years of change, SAT scores for incoming students increased, the university greatly improved the student-to-faculty ratio, and Northeastern doubled the level of its research grants.

“As the visionary and architect of the ‘smaller and better’ agenda, Jack Curry was a giant who laid a foundation for decades of success at Northeastern following his presidency,” Joseph E. Aoun, the current president, said for the university’s tribute to Dr. Curry.

“The entire Northeastern family, and the world of higher education, owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude,” Aoun said.

An avid runner, Dr. Curry refined some ideas that became university policy during his daily roadwork while logging 50 or more miles a week.

He kept running and mulling thoughts in the years after he left Northeastern and turned to writing nine books, including some crime novels.

“When running, I’m formulating ideas,” he told the Globe in 2000. “If I just ended a scene, I’m thinking, ‘What do I do next?’ "

Just as his accent reflected his North Shore roots — he grew up in Lynn and lived for many years in Saugus — Dr. Curry set some of his fiction in communities such as Lynn, Marblehead, Saugus, Swampscott, and Revere.

“You really do mingle in your own biography and places you have been and feel comfortable describing,” he said.

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The older of two brothers, John Anthony Curry was born in Boston on May 12, 1934.

His father, John Curry, worked for the City of Lynn, and his mother, Margaret Connors Curry, became ill and died while Dr. Curry was a youth.

“He helped his mother when he was young,” said Dr. Curry’s daughter, Susan Brown of Saugus. “I think made him the man he was.”

Dr. Curry graduated in 1951 from Lynn English High School and went to Northeastern, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1956.

As a student co-op, he worked for Carl Ell, who was then the university’s president, and for William White, the provost, Northeastern said in its tribute.

The year Dr. Curry graduated he married Marcia E. Mudge, who had been three years behind him in high school and was an administrator in the welfare department at Massachusetts General Hospital.

During his time at Northeastern, she was very involved in university activities. The John A. and Marcia E. Curry Student Center was named for the couple in 1996.

“Jack guided the university through some tough years and he positioned the university to become a very different, very successful place. Marcia was his great partner in all of it,” Katherine Pendergast, a former vice president of human resources at Northeastern, said for the university’s tribute when Mrs. Curry died in 2017. “She was a constant presence and a gracious first lady.”

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In a 2000 Globe interview, Dr. Curry recalled that his teaching career began in Bourne. A few years later, he and Marcia moved to Saugus, where he taught middle school and high school English.

He later taught in Newton before becoming an admissions administrator at Northeastern and then an administrator in Swampscott’s school system before he returned to Northeastern in the early 1970s.

Receiving a master’s from Northeastern and a doctorate from Boston University, both in education, Dr. Curry rose through Northeastern’s ranks as vice president of administration and executive vice president before being named president.

“It was a difficult job, but I was happy to be doing it and helping the university go forward,” he told the Globe in 2000, adding that during his tenure as president, “We became smaller but better.”

Dr. Curry “was a great father and a good husband to my mother,” Susan said. “He was good to everybody. He never thought he was better than anyone else. He was just an average Joe.”

A service has been held for Dr. Curry, who in addition to his daughter leaves two sons, Robert of Waltham and Timothy of Saugus; a brother, Martin of Clearwater, Fla.; six grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

“He was just a dear guy. I can’t say enough about him,” Dukakis said. “He was very much a part of the Northeastern family from the beginning.”

In 1996, when Dr. Curry surprised Boston’s academic world by announcing he would step down after six years in the job, among those who praised his tenure was Thomas M. Menino, then Boston’s mayor.

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“He’s been the urban president,” said Menino, who died in 2014. “He’s really paid attention to our city.”

In his inaugural speech in 1989, Dr. Curry promised full Northeastern scholarships to 100 first-graders in Boston’s school system. A few years later, he launched a program offering what then amounted to financial aid of about a quarter of Northeastern’s tuition to Boston students who graduated from high school with a B average or above.

“The obligations of the university extend beyond the borders of its campus,” he said in 1989.

Even as president he was at heart a writer, a passion he devoted more time to in retirement, and which brought a different kind of satisfaction.

“To have someone come up to me on the street when I’m out running and say ‘Hey, I read your book and I liked it,’ that’s a great feeling,” he said in 2000. “They are talking about what you created. It’s very meaningful.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.