Monday, June 07, 2010


The phone rang at about 10 this morning. It was my mother-in-law, Judy, who immediately got down to the business of what was to be a terrible phone call.

“Starr is dead.”

The news was so quick and so abrupt it took several moments to process what I had just heard. This didn’t seem possible. My father-in-law is a healthy and active guy. He hikes the Grand Canyon. He eats right. He stays active. There’s no way this can possibly be true. But it’s true. He had a heart attack in his sleep and never woke up.

I met Starr 11 years ago when I turned up on his doorstep for the obligatory I’m-the-guy-dating-your-daughter-and-things-are-getting-serious-enough-that-I-should-meet-the-parents dinner. I had been warned that he might try to scare me off by acting a little odd. Sure enough, he greeted me at the door with a copy of “Emily Posts’ Guide to Weddings.” He handed it to me and said, “read up.” What I would learn later is that Starr wasn’t acting a little odd to put me off. Turns out, Starr was just a little odd, no matter what. My dating his daughter didn’t really enter into the equation.

I have many reasons to be eternally grateful for Starr and the life he lived. There are the obvious ones, of course. He is the father of the woman I love. Without him, many of the greatest joys of my life wouldn’t have happened. He also quickly became a willing and effective co-conspirator at Curtis family gatherings. When all the family togetherness would get to be a bit much, Starr would offer a convenient excuse to run off somewhere, be it a local pizza place or a Krispy Kreme with the hot light still on.

But there are more subtle ways that Starr’s life made mine better. When I was first dating Julie, I couldn’t understand why a poised, intelligent, and accomplished person like her would go out with a goofball like me. But after spending some time with Starr, I started to understand why. His off-kilter personality helped increase Julie’s tolerance for the unusual. When I came along, it was nothing odder than what she had seen before.

It was once fashionable to make fun of one’s in-laws, to claim they were nasty or boring or otherwise objectionable. I have always considered myself lucky to have in-laws that I truly enjoy being around. In April, Starr and I drove from Oregon to Arizona with two obnoxious 3-year-olds in the back seat. Starr turned out to be the ideal travel companion, full of fun, intelligent, and interesting conversation… and he always let me choose the radio station.

We left Arizona in early May, and that was the last time I saw Starr. I don’t really recall what I said… probably “thank you” for driving with the kids, maybe I thanked him for the generosity and hospitality he always showed when I visited. At the time, it was a trivial exchange, nothing worth really paying attention to.

Had I known it would be the last time I spoke with him, I probably would have tried to convey more. I would have thanked him for the kindness he showed me as a newcomer to his family. I would have thanked him for infusing his daughter with a sense of whimsy that delights me every day. I’m sure I would have told him I loved him. It’s not something we said to each other much, although it was pretty much implied.

Tonight I also mourn the loss my children will feel once they fully understand what’s going on. Nate and Will are just shy of their 4th birthday and are just starting to understand how fun a grandpa can be. Just last week, they were asking when they would get to see Grandpa Starr again. I wish they could have gotten to know him better. I wish they would have gotten old enough to be allowed to play with Grandpa Starr’s hand crank electric generator. I also wish Eliza were old enough to have some memories of her Grandpa Starr. I take some comfort in knowing that they did get to meet and that they liked each other very much. I only wish that relationship had a chance to grow and blossom into something even more beautiful.

At times like these, the Mormon prohibition on alcohol seems especially cruel. It really would be handy to have something that would both loosen the tongue and deaden the pain. For whatever reason, this seems like the kind of death that should be marked by people sitting around a bottle of whiskey, each offering a toast in memory of Starr. Alas, we’re Mormon and we just don’t roll like that.

But in that spirit, allow me to raise my (pretend) shot of whiskey into the air and say the following:

Here’s to Herbert Starr Curtis. He was a good man. He did good things, things that made people happy. And in the family that remains, he has left a legacy of beauty and joy that will continue to make others happy for many years to come.

Bottoms up.


At 11:23 pm, Blogger Christina Lyon Maughan said...

Beautiful tribute to your father-in-law.

I too understand and appreciate the joy of having amazing in-laws. It is a rich blessing.

At 11:54 pm, Blogger Nate said...

Thank you for this Matt. He loved you a great deal and looked forward to every time you arrived.

He liked Julie ok too.


At 9:19 am, Blogger eleniweasel said...

What a beautiful tribute! I didn't know Starr well, but thoroughly enjoyed him! May his memory be eternal!!
~eleni cannon (betsy's sister)

At 5:36 pm, Anonymous Darrell E. Wagoner said...


I was thinking about Starr just the other day. I've actually kept in touch with him every now and then asking him a question or two about reactions and particle size and crystal structure. He was always a cordial listener and we would have some pretty interesting talks. Not that I ever approached his level of ability, but I think he enjoyed the chance to talk "science" with a colleague. I always looked forward to seeing him at meetings...those geologists are always some of the more interesting people at the table. I recently returned from a National Association of Corrosion Engineers meeting and I remember seeing this gentleman walk up near the booth, he had a gemstone bolo tie, khaki's, and a loose fitting denim shirt....kind of a funny but serious look on his face like he was contemplating something...when he got close, I said, "geologist, right?" He had this duffle bag around his neck and reached in and pulled out this wine stopper that he had made from a rough hewn piece of wood. Kind of funky looking but in a cool way. He said, "here...for being observant. A true scientist." I told him that I know a few geologists and you guys are always the same...like you know something the rest of us don't. He reminded me of Starr, that's how I knew what he did.

The other day, Lynne found the wine stopper and of course it didn't match any that we had bought at the fancy wine shop and she wanted to throw it out. I told her that she couldn't, that it was a good luck talisman made for me by a shaman....or a geologist, I get them both mixed up...

Give my best to the family, I will remember Mr. Starr Curtis, PhD with great affectation and admiration.

Darrell E. Wagoner

At 11:19 am, OpenID journal6other said...

Has it been 11 years already? For those of us still trying to come to grasp with linear time as well as why Princess Julie would decide to spend her life with a grilled-cheese-sandwich-making jester, this helps shed some light. And some tears.

My memories of Starr - only I do not remember him as Starr, but as Julie's dad - his oddnesses, as you describe them, his deadpan sense of humor, combined with Judy's quiet elegance, even the teasing of her dorky brothers and her bratty kid sister - all of Julie's family - as a place of refuge, of warm welcome, during those impressionable and vulnerable middle to high school years: Oh. This is what a family could be.

Words - especially text on a screen - seem a hollow substitute, ineffective for communicating sadness and love. But what else do we have?

Take it from an ex-Mormon who has enjoyed the taste of whiskey, the numbing does not help ease the pain of the real or lengthen the brevity of this life. In memory, in sadness, in love, Jana

At 4:36 pm, Blogger bgadams12 said...

Starr had magic in him. He made odd an elegant thing to be. I remember visiting with Judy in her kitchen, while Matt and Starr cracked jokes about this and that, mostly about the peculiarness of "Mormonism" while Judy snickered and casted out a rye comment here and there--just loud enough for Starr to hear and laugh heartily. As I think back on that memory, I can remember distinctly thinking, "I know why I love Julie so much. She is the perfect combination of her parents." Julie was tucked away in some back room grabbing the little sleep that came her way back then, when the twins were just new.

That same visit, I had the privilege of hiking Camelback Mt. with Starr. I knew I was face to face with greatness that day as I walked with this extraordinary individual, listening to his enthusiasm over the beauty and science of our natural surroundings. I remember thinking, "Does a love of rocks make someone brilliant?" In the case of Starr perhaps this was partly true.

I admired Starr. I still do. I can't imagine the loss Judy must feel. The belief in forever becomes more poignant in death. Does it not? May the Lord bless you and keep you all. I pray that your family, especially Judy, finds peace in his passing beyond into the great unknown. I find comfort knowing that through his faith in the gospel, he knew exactly where he was going when his sojourn here was over. His faith was as strong as his humanity. For this he will always be one of favorite Mormons of all time.

Love, Bonnie


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