A Tribute to Charles Curtiss

 Green Revolution, Volume 74, No., 2017 is a tribute issue featuring articles, poems and remembrances of Charles.

The article below is from the tribute issue.

A Tribute to Charles Curtiss 

By Karen Stupski with help from Victoria Porterfield

Charles Curtiss was a musician, a Montessori teacher, an advocate for social and ecological justice, and a pillar of Heathcote Community for 21 years.  His contributions to Heathcote were essential to the development of the community and have had a lasting impact.  Charles helped to shape Heathcote in fundamental ways and played a critical role in making it an active, strong and stable School of Living land trust community and learning center.  Some of Charles’ greatest contributions to Heathcote were in the areas of permaculture, gardening, teaching, music, humor, conflict resolution, wisdom, and cooperative leadership.  He was an outstanding community member and a wonderful friend.  Our memories of Charles and the example he set continue to inspire us. 

Charles’ Life Before Heathcote

Charles was born on July 19, 1949 and grew up in a family of 2 adults and 6 children.  His father, Jack Curtiss, served in the Navy during World War II and later worked as a mechanical engineer & project manager.  His mother, Jeanne Kittenger Curtiss, was a full time mother, and also worked as teacher, nurse, librarian, business owner, and tax preparer/bookkeeper.  Charles’ siblings are Dave, Tom, Jan, Dan and Caroline.  Charles spent most of his childhood in Michigan, although he and his family lived in Brussels, Belgium for two years when he was 13.   Charles married twice -- once to Gretchen Steltzer (circa 1969-1973) and later to Sherry Attila (circa 1975-1983).   Both marriages ended amicably and he always spoke fondly of his former wives.  According to Charles’ sister Jan, he was a difficult spouse because of his idealism.  Charles often told the story of how Sherry ended the marriage by telling him, “I love you, but I can’t live with you.”  I remember Charles sharing that quote at Heathcote several times when folks were having trouble getting along to make the point that even if you decide you can’t live with someone you can still love them.

Charles began playing the drums as a teen and went on to become an accomplished drummer and guitar player.  He started with a small drum pad given to him by his brother Dave.  After high school Charles played in a band and lived in a group house with his band mates in Kalamazoo, MI.  He later attended the Berklee School of Music in Cambridge, MA.  For two years he earned his livelihood as a professional musician, performing in a rock band that went on tour across the country.  However, he found that playing music for money in smoky environments made it less enjoyable, and he eventually decided to change careers.  Nevertheless, his love of creating music continued throughout his life and manifested itself in sing-alongs, African drumming, World Music Drumming and the playing of xylophones. 

Charles became a Montessori teacher and took a job in Baltimore, MD. He was employed by Greenspring Montessori for nearly 20 years, with a small break occurring when he left the states to live in Nicaragua.  For most of that time, he was a classroom teacher of three to six year olds.  Later, he transitioned into teaching in the school's toddler program and eventually moved into part-time work teaching Spanish and drumming to elementary students.  During his last year at Greenspring, he returned to the younger students as he created a weekly music program for the primary level.  His friend and fellow Montessori teacher Victoria Porterfield said, “I remember how happy the children were to see ‘Mr. Charles’ enter our classroom each week with his ‘mystery bag’ containing, enchantingly, a new percussive instrument to touch and explore!  Charles radiated a gentle love and acceptance of the children, which made all of them so eager to be around him.  He could pick up his guitar and begin to sing and a room full of wiggly children would become entranced.  His rare ability to truly listen and his endearing sense of humor not only drew little ones to his side, but motivated parents and fellow staff to seek him out for his genuine openness, non-judgmental opinions, and a wonderful laugh.  Years after his departure from the school, people continued to remember him for his true goodness and his grace in the face of challenge.”

Charles was very active with Casa Baltimore/Limay, “a friendship-city project connecting the peoples of San Juan de Limay, Nicaragua, and the Baltimore, MD, region…that operate[s] within a network of linked communities in poorer and wealthier nations working toward global peace.”  Charles went on a trip to Nicaragua in 1988 and was very touched by his experience there, so he learned Spanish and became a delegation leader, taking seven more groups there from 1989 to 1994.  During this period, he also lived in Limay, Nicaragua, for a time, July 1990 to January 1991.  He was also interested in environmental issues affecting Limay and traveled to Mexico with two others from the village to take a permaculture course.  Through his work with Casa Baltimore Limay, Charles became aware of the role of the U.S. government in funding the war there and decided to become a tax resister against the war.  According to his friend Richard Ochs, Charles was eventually faced with the choice of paying the taxes or going to jail, and after agonizing for a long time he decided to pay the IRS in pennies.  After that he tried to keep his income low as another way to avoid paying taxes.

In 1990, Charles had his first successful “intentional living” situation with his friend Kathy Schaafsma (coordinator of the Central America Solidarity Committee) in Baltimore.  In his Heathcote membership application Charles commented on that experience: “It worked very well.  We shared the house, vegetarian meals, yoga, walks and talks together – plus musical potlucks and our common interest in Central America work.  I believe it went so well because 1) we were already good friends, 2) we had so many common interests, 3) our personalities were simpatico, 4) we planned and discussed the venture for several months, 5) we had an escape plan, and 6) we have much respect for each other.  Sharing places with others for convenience sake or with lovers has not always worked well, I believe, because the relationships lacked some or many of the six points enumerated above.”  However, Charles eventually realized that he was tired of living in the city and he longed to live in a place where he could be more connected with nature.

Charles Moves to Heathcote Community

Charles first visited Heathcote in 1994.  Heathcote was in a time of transition from being a women’s community to becoming a mixed community of men, women and children.  About this time Charles was looking for a place to live in the country. He had heard of Heathcote, so he decided to stop by and check it out. Charles had realized that he could not afford land in Baltimore County on his own.  However, School of Living and Heathcote offered a viable alternative to buying land.  SOL’s model of holding title to land and leasing it to the community with a long-term lease that conveys most of the rights of ownership makes land accessible to those who can’t otherwise afford it.  When Charles showed up on Heathcote’s doorstep for his first visit I told him, “We’re looking for a few good men,” since membership was now open to men for the first time in 10 years, and we needed more men to provide gender balance.   Thankfully, my recruitment strategy worked!!

On December 8, 1994, Charles submitted his membership application. His brother Dave noted that Heathcote was a perfect fit for Charles.  It was a place where he could connect with nature and live in alignment with his values of ecological sustainability, vegetarianism, simple living, and social justice.  In his application Charles said, “I prefer to keep my living expenses to a minimum so as to reduce the amount of $ I must earn.  I’m striving to do work that feels ‘right.’ To integrate my daily activities with my general view of what constitutes a healthier society and a more sustainable environment.”  He also said that he saw community as an integral part of his spiritual path:  “Sharing work, food, song, dance with others who care for each other and care about the next seven generations (of the whole life community), is a way of bringing together body, mind, and spirit – which is the key to spiritual growth.  It’s about integrating the theory and practice ever more closely.  Spirit is direct and inseparable from everyday living; not something ‘outside’ or in the clouds.  To the degree that I am able to share daily life with like-minded folks – living in concert and on purpose, to that extent will I walk on the spiritual path.”

Charles moved in that winter and started out living in Marga Waldeck’s old trailer on the hill. Later that year he moved into the Farmhouse, where he lived for the majority of his time at Heathcote, aside from an interlude in the Greenhouse.  At Heathcote we joke about how new members often have unrealistic expectations of community, imagining how perfect it is going to be.  Then after about 6 months the “honeymoon” period ends.  However, I don’t think Charles ever became disillusioned with Heathcote.  He was very aware of the challenges of community living, but that did not stop him from having a positive attitude.  What set Charles apart from members who come through and leave disappointed because Heathcote is not what they expected is that Charles worked to manifest his vision for Heathcote and did not give up.  He did not complain about problems, but instead, took the initiative to work cooperatively with others to solve problems and create a better community.   That reminds me of an old Navy saying:  “There’s no such thing as a bad ship; just one that you didn’t make good.”  The same can be said of community, and I can attest that Charles put his heart and soul into making Heathcote good.

Permaculture and Gardening

During Charles’ first year at Heathcote Barbara Siebert (now Anderson), a SOL member who lived near Julian Woods at a beautiful home called Skytop, recommended that we host a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) to help us design our community.  Barbara had just hosted a course taught by Dawn Shiner and she found it to be a valuable experience.  A former Heathcote member, Cynthia Edwards, had been a permaculture teacher, but there were no records of her work at Heathcote.  Most of the current members did not know much about Permaculture, except for Charles, who had taken a course in Mexico as part of his work with Casa Baltimore-Limay.  As a result of that course Charles had decided to shift his focus from trying to help folks in other countries to trying to get U.S. Americans to live a more ecologically responsible and less harmful lifestyle.  Charles thought that permaculture was an excellent tool for that, so he agreed to help organize a PDC at Heathcote.

In 1995, Heathcote hosted its first PDC since becoming a mixed community. It was taught by Dawn Shiner and attended by Charles, several other Heathcote members, and participants from outside the community. Charles was the lead organizer and helped with fundraising for scholarships, using skills he had learned with Casa Baltimore Limay.  It was a very memorable course.  We learned the ethics, principles, design methods and techniques of permaculture, which was a real paradigm shift for most of us.  In addition, we created a permaculture design for Heathcote, which articulated many of the goals and strategies that would guide the community for many years.  In addition, those of us who attended the course bonded on a deep level.  During the PDC a major conflict erupted and we ended up spending a whole day on conflict resolution.  As the lead organizer, Charles played a major role in helping to resolve it, and the conflict resolution process became one more valuable learning experience of that memorable course.

Charles played a major role in getting Heathcote’s permaculture education program up and running.  I loved his humble attitude towards the work.  Charles did not view himself as an “expert” but instead he framed the program as being about “learning, practicing and sharing” permaculture.  He organized three more PDC’s at Heathcote in 1996, 1997 and 1998.  Every year during his summer break from teaching at the Montessori School he worked tirelessly on course marketing, recruitment and logistics.  He also assisted Dawn Shiner with teaching and did trouble shooting whenever conflicts and challenges came up.  In addition, Charles helped to organize the Greater Baltimore Permaculture Guild (GBPG), our local permaculture group, and was active in organizing Hands-On Learning Demonstrations (HOLD), a series of hands-on learning events featuring the implementation of permaculture projects in the local area. After several years, however, Charles gained clarity that he felt more called to practice permaculture than to teach it.  So he let go of his role as PDC coordinator and teacher and shifted his focus to gardening, mentoring interns, and living the permaculture lifestyle.

One of Charles’ greatest joys at Heathcote was gardening.  For many years he was in charge of the area we call the Main Garden, located between the Carriage House and the Greenhouse. Charles gardened the way he did everything – slowly, methodically, and with great care and attention to detail.  He planned the garden and ordered seeds in the winter, started seedlings in the greenhouse, transplanted and direct seeded crops in the spring (often using row cover), and diligently watered, weeded, and harvested throughout the summer and fall.  He worked for at least 1 hour every day and kept meticulous production records.  Charles’ garden beds always looked perfect and he got bountiful yields.  He also tended Heathcote’s compost piles and was very dedicated to building the soil using organic methods.

Charles embraced the permaculture lifestyle, adopting many eco-friendly practices in his daily life.  He was a committed vegetarian for most of his years at Heathcote and only ate meat in his final years as a therapeutic measure.  He lived simply, with few material possessions.   Charles liked to wear clothing made with ecological fabrics, and he was known for wearing his signature white organic cotton outfit day in and day out.  He conserved energy by drying his laundry on his drying rack. Charles also made humanure using the low tech “Joe Jenkins” method of collecting the poop in a bucket and composting it with vegetable matter in a compost pile.  Michael Humphrey made Charles a special humanure toilet, which he used in his bedroom.  Charles loved it, except for the fact that it was not “girlfriend friendly.” 

One of Heathcote’s biggest permaculture projects was the construction of a new strawbale house called Polaris.  Charles served on the design committee, along with Greg and Juji, who spearheaded and financed the project.  Charles planned to live in one of the downstairs bedrooms and designed it with an attached bathroom, including a flush toilet, to please his girlfriend.  Unfortunately, Charles never got to live in Polaris since he decided to stay in the Farmhouse after his Parkinson’s diagnosis.  Nonetheless, the Heathcoters who subsequently lived in “Charles’ room” have appreciated his thoughtful design.

Fun and Friendship

Charles was an essential part of Heathcote’s social fabric.  He had a warm, easygoing personality and was able to get along with everyone.  Charles put a lot of care into his friendships with community mates, adopting the practice of having regular “3,000 mile check-ins“ to stay up to date and resolve any issues that might be preventing the relationship from being closer.  He made an effort to connect with the children at Heathcote and helped with their homeschooling by giving them Spanish and music lessons.  In addition, he thoughtfully served those in need, and was extremely dedicated to helping Bill and Margaret Anacker, the elderly neighbors who had originally sold the land to School of Living.   Charles made Heathcote a fun place to live by organizing musical potlucks, with his Rise Up Singing songbooks, and leading group drumming sessions, with his extensive drum and xylophone collection.  In addition, he had a wonderful sense of humor and helped us all laugh at the challenges of community life.  I especially enjoyed his spoofy songs about community, such as “I’m being followed by a new member.”  After his Parkinson’s diagnosis Charles hosted weekly movie nights in his room at the “Charles Theater.”  He also loved to go for walks with friends, and even in his Parkinson’s years he regularly invited his friends to go for “walkie talkies.”

Wisdom and Leadership

At Heathcote we practice consensus decision-making, which means that in order for a proposal to be approved everyone must give their consent or stand aside.  Some people refer to groups that use consensus as “leaderless,” but I like to think of Heathcote as “leaderful.”  What I see happening at Heathcote is that members exercise leadership in different areas by proposing initiatives and, if the community supports the proposal, spearheading the implementation.  Members also exercise leadership by sharing their wisdom, setting an example, and influencing other members.  Charles played a leadership role at Heathcote in all of these ways.  I think his influence on the community was significant because we often looked to him for guidance when dealing with difficult issues.  He had a calm, logical, and insightful way of thinking about problems that I found very reassuring.   When it came to conflict, he was very emotionally stable and usually provided a fair and compassionate perspective that helped us find ways to cooperatively resolve issues. Charles had a very cooperative ethos and always insisted that when new members joined the community should be reformed to reflect their interests and viewpoints.  This is the opposite of “founders' syndrome,” where the long-term members try to retain control.  However, there was an incident involving Charles’ leadership role in the community that we loved to laugh about.  When the Goldmans first visited Heathcote, young Benjamin asked Charles, “Are you the leader of the community?”  Charles said “no” and Benjamin said, “Well, you sure act like it.”

After Charles’ Parkinson’s diagnosis, he remained a vital member of the community despite being less physically active.   One aspect of Parkinson's is that there are “off times,” when it’s hard to function, and “on times,” when it’s possible to engage in many daily activities.  Charles usually stayed in his room during his “off times,” and he learned to make the most efficient and meaningful use of his “on times.” He liked being as active and independent as possible and rarely asked for help.  He continued to participate in plenary meetings, committee work, and retreats, as well as leading drumming, teaching Spanish and hosting the Charles Theater.  He cooked for himself, following the Terry Wahls diet, a special therapeutic regimen that involved eating primarily vegetables and some lean meat.  Charles also drove himself to the local Giant once a week to go shopping, and I think he really valued the sense of freedom that gave him.   One thing that brought him joy was connecting with nature, and he went for daily walks to the mailbox and back.  Along the road he passed by a tree leaning on another tree, that he affectionately called “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”  He also took “spirit breaks” with his community mate Cindy 3-4 times per day, reading and discussing spiritual passages. Charles maintained an incredibly positive attitude despite the many challenges he faced in his final years and I deeply admired him for his courage and fortitude. 

Heathcote is not the same without Charles.  We miss his corny jokes, his spoofy songs and his laughter. We miss his emotional stability, his wisdom, and his compassion.  We miss his friendship, his walkie talkies, and his 3,000 mile check-ins.  But although he has left us physically, Charles’ spirit and his memory live on in our hearts and in our minds.  We continue to be inspired by his vision, his teaching and his example.  We continue to carry on the work that he did with such dedication and care – the work of creating a more peaceful, sustainable and socially just world.  And we continue to make Heathcote the best community it can be – a community that strives to embody the values that Charles lived and carry on his legacy.

Charles’ Sayings

The wheels of community turn slowly.

Hey look – we’re being a community!

Community – love it or get the fuck out.

I’ll give you ten dollars…

I don’t have any pie.

The bigger the front the bigger the back.

All will be revealed in the fullness of time.

Have a namasday.

It’s one of those drop dead gorgeous Michigan kind of days.

Would you like to go for a walkie talkie?

“Dirt food” (health food) and “poison” (sugar)

“Vitals” and “glop”