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Last Updated

15 Nov 2002

Source:  Washington Post, October 26, 2001.

Two Men Who Were Just Doing Their Jobs

The Man Next Door: Joseph Curseen Jr. Pulled His Community Together

By Phil McCombs, Washington Post Staff Writer

Joseph P. Curseen Jr. was no whiner.

After feeling ill and passing out at Mass last Saturday afternoon, he told the rescue squad he was okay, and stayed to receive Communion.

That night, as usual, Curseen, 47, reported for work at the big Brentwood postal facility in Northeast Washington -- but by 2 a.m. he was again feeling so ill that he called his wife, Celestine, and went home early.

The next day his condition worsened. He was tired and nauseated. He was perspiring beads of sweat "as big as half dollars," his wife later told a priest. She took him to Southern Maryland Hospital Center near their home in Clinton, where he was diagnosed with stomach flu and sent home.

Early the next morning she brought him back to the emergency room. He was having trouble breathing.

Six hours later he was dead -- of inhalation anthrax.

Joe Curseen Jr., Celestine said, was a devoted, loving husband -- "caring, friendly, religious." Then, unable to continue, she excused herself, saying she had to hang up the phone.

Evil, said John Ball sadly, "seems to take the good ones." Ball and other neighbors and friends remember Curseen as a quiet, friendly, fun-loving man, a pillar of his community in Cambridge Estates, a tidy swath of Colonial-style homes tucked behind a commercial strip just off Old Branch Avenue near Andrews Air Force Base. The Curseens moved there in 1986.

"He was an incredibly hard worker," said Ball, who lives next door to the Curseen house. "He worked the night shift at the post office. He paid off his house in 10 years."

According to a representative of the American Postal Workers Union, Curseen "was a very dedicated worker. He never used any sick leave in the 15 years he worked for the Postal Service. That was incredible."

"He was a super-sweet guy," recalled Kathy Ball, John's wife. "You'd see him out jogging and cutting his grass with that little elastic knee brace he always wore. He wore a mask for his allergies, too. He was incredibly easygoing, and if anything needed doing around the neighborhood, he'd help out."

Curseen became president of the neighborhood community association about 10 years ago. He often intervened with the builder on behalf of homeowners, and worked hard to establish a playground and park in the area though he and his wife had no children.

The Curseens regularly attended St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Clinton, where Joe fainted Saturday evening. On the family's answering machine at home, Joe's voice still says gently, "Have a blessed day."

"Last Friday he was out passing out fliers about speed bumps, so that we could get them," Kathy Ball recalled. "It was his latest project. He was so active, he turned us into a community. He was our community.

"For some reason, the last few days I've been thinking about Camelot. Joe was sort of our King Arthur."

Curseen grew up in a small, clean-cut neighborhood of row houses on Bangor Street in Southeast Washington. The son of a postal worker and housewife -- his parents still live there -- he reported for first grade at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, set high on a hill overlooking the gleaming monuments of Washington.

Tomorrow, his funeral service will be held there at 10 a.m., with Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick presiding.

Like many black Washingtonians who move to the suburbs, Curseen maintained a strong connection with the parish of his youth, where he'd stayed throughout elementary school. Until his death, he remained a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, regularly attending services there as well as in Maryland, and serving as a special minister of the Eucharist.

"In his own quiet way," recalled Our Lady's priest, the Rev. Lowell Case, "he told me, 'Southeast Washington will always be part of my life.' "

Case said the Curseens "were an old 1950s kind of family. The neighborhood was full of stable, law-abiding, respectful people like them. Joe was always polite, extremely reverential. 'Good morning, Father,' he'd always say, and, 'Father, do you need me to help clean up?'

"The Curseens never wanted to bore you with their life story. They made it clear that they had come to serve, and not to be served. Joe's father set that tone."

Joe Jr., Case said, "had a firm handshake; he'd look you in the eye. There was not a lot of small talk. He was very interested in history and family and community events. He was extremely well-read."

Joseph P. Curseen Sr. was also a longtime head of his community civic association. In many ways, Case said, the son "followed in his father's footsteps."

Yesterday, while he helped his two daughters make arrangements for the funeral, Curseen Sr. was said by friends to be too tired to give interviews. "We live in a dangerous world," he'd told USA Today earlier, "and those cowards who did this will have a lot to answer for one day.

"My faith stands by me, my wife and Joe's wife."

The family had sacrificed financially to send young Joe to Gonzaga College High School, a premier parochial institution. He went on to graduate from Marquette University in Milwaukee, where, according to news reports, he majored in business.

After college, he remained in Milwaukee for a time and met his future wife there, Celestine Curseen said in her brief phone interview. Friends said that Joe lived in California for a period before returning to the East.

"He was just a very quiet, very gentle man -- and a gentleman," said the Rev. Case.

Tomorrow's Mass of Christian Burial, he said, "is going to be a biggie." Mayor Anthony Williams and other dignitaries are expected to attend. Case plans a sermon on "when bad things happen to good people," drawing his text from John 9:3, in which Jesus causes a blind man to see:

Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.

"Even in tragedy," the priest said, "there will be something that God wants us to learn. We have to trust that He will grant Joe eternal rest and peace -- he was one who never hurt anyone and was just doing his job.

"He was a good and upright and honest man who had a deep sense of responsibility to his community and family, and to his church family."