Thomas Curtis Remembered as Outstanding Philanthropist, Visionary and Friend
Hazel Riser remembers Thomas Curtis as a generous man, who was unfailingly good to his word. The prominent South Florida businessman, who she describes as a “real Georgia gentleman,” died in 2015, leaving behind a tremendous gift of philanthropy and commitment.
“He was a very gentle and dependable person,” said Riser, 90, his longtime neighbor and friend. “He was very giving, and if he said he was going to do something, it would always get done.”
Curtis, the founder of the Miami Battery Manufacturing Company and the Curtis Battery and Electric Company in Miami, was among the top supporters of the University of Miami and the Miller School of Medicine.
Over a span of nearly 35 years, he donated more than $4 million to various initiatives at UM, including the UM/Jackson Memorial Hospital Burn Center, the School of Business Administration, the University of Miami Ear Institute, the Cardiovascular Division, and the Department of Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery.
“I had the privilege of knowing Thomas Curtis over a number of years and in a number of capacities,” said Laurence B. Gardner, M.D., Interim Dean of the Miller School. “He was a gentleman of the ‘old school’ — a self-made man who called it like it was. He was gracious, generous, and charming, albeit, occasionally cantankerous. His commitment to square dancing and socializing was an example we all envied. He knew his mind and called his own shots up to the very end of his life. He was quite an extraordinary man.”
It is an impressive legacy for a man who, despite having just a seventh-grade education, went on to become a successful business owner and real estate entrepreneur.
Curtis moved to Miami in 1936, and, soon after, founded the Miami Battery Manufacturing Company. Shortly after opening his business, he was drafted into the military, and he served as a chief electrician aboard the U.S.S. Harveson for most of World War II.
When he returned, he reestablished the business and later created the Curtis Battery and Electric Company.
He credited “hard work, determination, and honesty” for the success of his business, where he was known by some of his employees as “tall man,” thanks to his 6-foot, 2-inch frame.
Curtis’s business acumen also extended to real estate dealings. When he was short on operating capital, friends remember he would apply for credit cards and spend to his limit to purchase the property. At one point, he bought 296 acres in the Florida Keys for $30,000 and sold it later to the State of Florida for $300,000.
“Mr. Curtis would handle the property, and his wife, Augustina, would handle the books and the stock market,” recalls Riser. “They were really a wonderful team.”
The relationship between the Curtis and Riser families began in 1972, when both moved into the same Miami Springs neighborhood. Hazel and Augustina were best friends for more than 25 years before Augustina passed away. Riser’s husband, George, passed shortly afterward.
The friendship between the remaining spouses grew to a point where they became companions who relied on each other for life’s everyday adventures and challenges.
Riser remembers a time when an alarm went off in the middle of the night at her late husband’s appliance business.
She drove herself to the store at 3 a.m. and stayed until the employees arrived.
“I told Mr. Curtis about it later, and he was so upset.” Riser said. “He said, ‘Don’t you do that again by yourself. You have no business doing that by yourself.’ True to his word, the next time he went with me.”
Riser still refers to Curtis, who was a few years older than she was, as “Mr. Curtis” — a sign of courtesy born of her rural Texas roots.
She said he was a man of great contrasts: a tall, striking figure, who hated recognition; a man who built a battery business from the ground up, but couldn’t change a flat tire or fill a tank of gas; a man who was quiet, but loved to tell a good story; and who didn’t want children, but cared for the stray dogs and cats in the neighborhood.
Most of all she remembers a man who did what he wanted to do. Such was the case when the two were driving home from the beach one day. Riser was behind the wheel when she asked him a question.
Curtis didn’t answer, so knowing he was hard of hearing, she asked again. When he didn’t answer a second time, she pulled over to see what was wrong.
“I said to him, ‘Mr. Curtis, did you hear me?’ ” Riser said. “He replied, ‘Yeah, I heard you, I just didn’t want to answer you.’ ”
But other times, Riser recalls, Curtis was a fun-loving partner who loved to go to the track, keep in touch with his Navy buddies, and spend time on the dance floor.
“Hazel and Tom would dance all night. No one could keep up,” said Connie Kazanjian, a former UM development officer in the School of Business Administration. “They were amazing and beautiful dancers, who truly enjoyed what they were doing.”
Riser said Curtis’s entrepreneurial spirit took root in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, in the 1930s, where he was determined to succeed even in the midst of the Great Depression.
With his father often not in the family picture, Curtis and his brother spent their summers on their grandfather’s potato farm in Rincin, Georgia, where they had the thankless job of plucking bugs from the potato plants.
His business acumen was honed early; Riser remembers stories of a young Curtis filling his wagon with five cents worth of ice so he could tote cold Cokes around town to sell to workers.
When a teacher scolded him for neglecting his school work one day, Curtis decided his future lay elsewhere.
“He left school that day, and just never went back. He was in the seventh grade,” said Riser.
Shortly after, Curtis hitchhiked and rode railway freight cars across the country to Los Angeles. He landed a position in Hollywood as a mechanic’s helper and kept the job for three years before moving on to Chicago.
There, he strung tennis racquets at a club in suburban Chicago before moving to Miami in 1936. He met Augustina Carrera, who worked as a waitress at a diner, and they married in 1941.
Though she had been the valedictorian of her high school class, her father refused to give her a college education, deeming it unimportant for women. That inspired a passion for secondary education that Curtis memorialized seven years after Augustina passed away from lung cancer.
He donated $1 million to the UM School of Business Administration to honor her work as a bookkeeper and accountant.
In recognition, Paul Sugrue, the Dean of the school until 2007, invited Curtis to visit. The two formed an immediate bond, thanks to their respective service in the U.S. Navy.
“It didn’t matter that the Dean was highly educated, and Tom wasn’t,” said Kazanjian. “They were on common ground, and that friendship forged an excellent relationship.”
Sugrue invited Curtis to speak to the students, an honor usually reserved for prominent business leaders, and the heads of Fortune 500 companies.
“Tom was an entrepreneur and a self-made man who built his business during a tough time,” said Kazanjian. “As such, he had a significant impact on the students because they could relate to him.”
Among his other gifts, Curtis supported the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital Burn Center from 1981 to 1998, including a $500,000 gift in 1998. The gifts were in honor of Augustina’s two nephews, who were City of Miami firefighters.
He was also a staunch supporter of cardiology, pulmonary medicine, and the Vascular Biology Institute, as well as the Department of Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery.
“Mr. Curtis was a very kind, soft-spoken, and humble gentleman who seemed to be always happy and content,” said Keyvan Nouri, M.D., Chief of Dermatology Services and Director of Mohs Laser Surgery at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. “He was a giving person and donated money to the department for the development of young careers. He lived a full life and was able to make a better one for many others.”
Curtis’s philanthropy toward the Miller School stemmed in part from the medical school’s commitment to serving people from all walks of life.
“The University of Miami has a health care system that’s good for poor people and good for the rich people. It’s good for anybody,” Curtis said in an earlier interview. “I think the University of Miami does a good job trying to help people.”
Through his generosity, patients for generations to come will benefit from his gifts. Hazel Riser is certain that would be thanks enough for her longtime friend.
“I don’t think Mr. Curtis would have cared if he was remembered or not,” Riser said. “He wasn’t that type of person who wanted to be number one. That wasn’t who he was. He was really a fine man.”