Sunday, March 30, 2003

An Opening Day love letter from a son to his father

John Curnutte Jr. died last month. By his casket was the Reds cap with the black bill.

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mark Curnutte's parents, John and Elizabeth, at a Kansas City Royals game in 2001. John always wore his Reds hat no matter where he attended a game.
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The Reds will open the 2003 baseball season Monday, playing their first game at Great American Ball Park.

The season will be a first for me, too. It will be my first without my father, the person with whom I most liked to share the great game.

John Tolliver Curnutte Jr. died last month in Dixon, Ill., after a series of strokes.

Not too long ago, during the heyday of the Big Red Machine, a common love of baseball was our bond when adolescence tried to pull me away. Baseball, in particular the Reds, not only kept us together but was the key that unlocked other parts of his life for me.

Born April 24, 1923, in Huntington, WV, Dad took to the Reds as a boy. He described childhood trips to Crosley Field like religious pilgrimages.

Ultimately, another drive to Cincinnati in 1943 led him through Union Terminal and onto the Pacific. After serving in the Marine Corps for more than three years, Dad met Mom and settled in north-central Illinois. Dixon was home since they were married in December 1950, but geographic distance did not diminish his loyalty to the Reds.

Mom, the former Elizabeth Ann Mueller, from Peru, Ill., brought her father's love of the White Sox into the marriage. The Reds and White Sox were the house teams, and each of the seven children holds those allegiances to this day.

Cubs? No way.

I'm the fifth of the seven. I turned 13 in April 1975, just as the Reds were beginning their march to the first of two consecutive World Series titles and staking their rightful claim as one of the greatest teams ever.

Broadcasters Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall were part of the family. Dad worked as a salesman for Nabisco. At night, he would finish paperwork while sitting at the head of the kitchen table. The radio, tuned to WLW, was within arm's reach. On those nights that interference prevented him from listening in the kitchen, Dad could be found sitting in the car parked in the driveway. I'd often walk out wearing my pajamas and sit in the passenger seat to listen with him.

Johnny Bench was Dad's favorite player on those Reds teams, but nobody could approach the admiration he held for Ted Williams.

When I visited Dad in the hospital the week before he died, and though dementia had set in he sometimes could recognize his wife, his children and former Reds players.

"Dad," I'd say, "what position did Johnny Bench play?"

"Mark Joseph," Dad would say, "Johnny Bench caught."

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Mark and dad John.
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Dad caught, too. He was a 130-pound high school player in Huntington. Those stories were passed to me at the kitchen table, where we'd usually meet at the end of our days.

He told about getting plowed over by a runner tagging up from third and losing the ball. It so happened that the same guy, who outweighed him by 50 pounds, tried to score on another play at the plate.

Dad learned his lesson. As the runner lowered his shoulder, Dad stepped to the side and - with the ball in his bare hand - tagged him right between the eyes.

I remember when Dad gave me his "rope" lesson about earning teen-age freedom. He framed the discussion, mercifully, typically, in baseball. It was June 15, 1977, the night the Reds completed the trade for Mets pitcher Tom Seaver.

Dad and I sat at the table. The kitchen was dark, except for the glow of the radio dial and the nightlight above the sink.

"Your mother says you've been giving her a hard time," he said. "I'll tell you the same thing I told your older brothers. I'll give you a little rope at a time, and if you prove you can handle it, I'll give you a little more each time. But if you mess it up, I'll cut it and you'll have a hard time getting it back."

I started to go to work with Dad about this time. He serviced two of his biggest grocery stores on Tuesday. We'd drive north on Illinois 2 along the Rock River to Byron and then back south to Oregon. He taught me to build displays, stock shelves and rotate product - freshest items in the back, face the shelf squarely in the front.

I was putting up Fig Newtons one day when the store manager in Byron asked Dad how much he had to pay me. Dad shot back, "Pay him, hell. He sticks his feet under my damn table every night."

I beamed with pride. I was learning the privilege of belonging.

In the car, we'd talk baseball.

The marvelous Bill Veeck owned the White Sox. Why did the Reds trade Tony Perez? Dad and I ate roast beef sandwiches and drank orange juice for lunch while driving. The radio always was on. We'd even listen even to the Cubs and end up laughing at their inevitable ineptitude. We grew closer. I started to look forward to these days with Dad, no longer seeing them as an obligation.

Familiarity revealed more about the man.

In World War II, he was an aviation mechanic. He flew as an engineer on a reconnaissance crew. He occupied China after the war. That much he told me. What he never told me I learned from his discharge papers while researching for his eulogy. He saw combat for three months in 1944 against the Japanese on the Marshall Islands.

He once had told me he'd rather go to war, even at his age, then 64, than have one of his four sons go.

Before long, it was my turn to go off to school. He had sent children to Harvard, Northwestern and Stanford. I went to Miami University and would figure out later that my choice had a lot to do with Dad. He never took advantage of his opportunity, although his high school GED scores in math were of Ivy League quality.

He told me he would have gone to Miami and would have liked to live in Cincinnati. He had coaches and teachers in high school from Miami, he said, and they were a cut above. I interned as a sportswriter at the Enquirer in 1984 and came back for good in 1993.

A son's life is tied to his father's dreams. Of this I have no regret.

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Mark Curnutte as a boy.
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When the fog started to clear from the Bengals' season early in January, I called home to talk to Dad. I wanted to plan a trip this summer to Reds games in the new ballpark. He and Mom had started to visit big-league parks over the past couple of years. They'd gone to Kansas City and Milwaukee. No matter the town, though, Dad wore his Reds cap with the black bill.

Mom answered the phone. Dad wasn't well, she said. Memory problems. Disorientation. The official diagnosis came a day later.

Stroke. An ulcer and possible heart valve blockage complicated his condition.

I called the next weekend. I was headed to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. Should I get home now? Should Dad and I watch Field of Dreams one more time, sitting in opposite corners of the living room and trying not to let the other see the tears welling in our eyes?

Dad was doing better, though. "Keep working," were his words. "I'll be fine."

I drove home on the night of Jan.31. Dad was in the Dixon hospital. A second major stroke caused paralysis in his right leg. His arms were rigid and bent. His peripheral vision was gone. In layman's terms, the wires in his brain were crossed.

He no longer could care for himself.

I stayed with Mom at the house. In a basket next to Dad's recliner I found the Cincinnati books I had mailed to him over the years - the Reds' histories written by my Enquirer colleague John Erardi, the 2002 Reds media guide, a Jim Borgman "Zits" collection to mark Dad's 78th birthday.

In the hospital, Dad acknowledged me a few times, usually after prompting by Mom or me. I prayed the rosary with him. I went to physical therapy with him in the hall out side his room. I tried to help feed him. I drove Mom to scout nursing homes in the area. I went twice to the Veterans Affairs office to make sure Dad received his due.

Difficult tasks that were all the same easy. My heart overflowed with love and gratitude.

I had to get back to Cincinnati on Feb. 6. My sister would be in the next night from Washington, D.C., just as other siblings had taken turns going home in January.

A stale cup of coffee in my hand, I stood at the end of the fourth-floor hallway at the hospital. I looked out the window and over downtown Dixon. On the hill to my left, to the south, was the Lee County Courthouse. To my right, on the north bank of the frozen Rock River, stood castle-like Dixon High School. My childhood spread out before me. Behind me, my father was dying, and it was time for me to say goodbye. But it wasn't going to be, "Dad, see you this summer."

Mom walked up beside me and said: "Mark, you have to get back to your family. Dad wouldn't want you to drag this out."

I had planned what to say. I wanted to keep it simple and direct, so he would have the best chance to understand. Nurses had propped him up in a chair. I stepped around the footrest and bent down.

"Dad," I said, "I have to go back to Cincinnati. But I want to tell you something."

I looked into his steel-blue eyes. He fought hard to make sense of my words. I said what I had prepared:

"Dad, if something happens, you don't have to worry about Mom. We'll all make sure she is OK. And I want you to know that I will always do my best to make you proud."

He struggled but lifted his shaking right arm onto my back to hug me. In a faint whistle he said, "That's about all you can do, Mark Joe."

And for the first time since I was 8 or 9 years old, my tears fell onto my father's shoulder. The words, too, poured out: "No kid ever had a better dad. I love you."

John Curnutte died Feb.12, a special day - Lincoln's birthday - in his adopted home state of Illinois. Funeral home visitation was the 14th, a surreal but appropriate way to spend a Valentine's Day; a brutally cold, snowy morning offset by knowledge that pitchers and catchers had started to report for spring training. It was Dad's favorite time of the year. Days were growing noticeably longer.

Near the head of his casket at his visitation, on a table, almost 80 years of this man's life were displayed in summary.

At 20, he peers from a Marine Corps portrait. He and his two brothers, Jim (Army) and Don (Navy), smile in a post-war reunion in Huntington. Dad looks dapper on Dec. 27, 1950, his arm around Mom on their wedding day. He stands with pride at the center of the last complete family picture, taken in July 1999 - seven children, seven in-laws, all 14 of the grandchildren, a number now totaling 16.

There were two non-photographs on the table: his Nabisco Showcase sampler book and that fitted Reds cap with the black bill.


Mark Curnutte is an Enquirer sportswriter and covers the Bengals. He can be reached at

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