The gravediggers wait in the hot morning sun.
One sits under the splintered shade of a palm tree. Tall and dark-complected, he bows his head and clasped his hands, as if in prayer.
His coworker waits in the thin shadow of a nearby tomb, holding a cell phone to his ear.
Dressed in the green work clothes of the local Archdiocese, they are the first to arrive for the burial of New Orleans police icon Manuel R. Curry at St. Patrick Cemetery No. 2, where Canal Boulevard meets City Park Avenue.
The laborers receive Curry’s early mourners with a grace and compassion that those in high office should emulate.
The thin worker unfolds a wire service story about Curry, who died June 4 at 84, after a brief illness.
Curry’s death – like his life – made world news.
Curry was the oldest active-duty police officer in the U.S., serving all 63 years with the New Orleans Police Department. A hero of World War II, he served his native New Orleans with distinction during the ignominious aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the racial fratricide of the 1960s.
His passing marked the end of an era and an ethic in New Orleans policing – the ever-present neighborhood beat cop, who protected and served the less fortunate – come hell or high water.
Raised in the Irish Channel, Curry was as an altar boy at St. John the Baptist Church, not far from the 6th District police station that will soon bear his name.
In 1935, he was a boy of 9 when the first Sugar Bowl football game was played at Tulane Stadium. The Huey P. Long Bridge was completed later that year. He was a teenager when the new Charity Hospital opened in ’39, followed one year later by the first Mississippi River bridge to downtown New Orleans. He graduated from St. Aloysius High School in ’43, and then signed up to fight the Nazis at an army recruiting post at a market on old Dryades Street.
By June 6, 1944, the 17-year-old combat medic was wading ashore under murderous fire at Omaha Beach, the bloodiest sector of the D-Day invasion at Normandy, France. “It looked like hell,” Curry told WWL-TV reporter Bill Capo in 2004.
That year, France awarded Curry the distinguished Legion of Honor – the nation’s highest civilian honor – for his role in the liberation from Nazi occupation.
After the war, Curry joined the NOPD on Dec. 30, 1946 – DeLesseps S. “Chep” Morrison’s first year as mayor. Curry walked the beat in the 6th District.
Cops didn’t have radios, but rapped the sidewalk three times with a nightstick to summon back up. In Curry’s first full year on the force, there were only 59 murders in New Orleans – a total that seems almost utopian today.
A seasoned veteran by the late 1950s, Curry broke up dice games and barroom fights in an era when the city opened a new city hall and the Causeway Bridge across Lake Pontchartrain was built.
During the 1960s he and other officers were assigned to protect the first black student to integrate the city’s public schools. “We stood at the doorway to make sure she got in safe,” Curry said, recalling racial epithets from angry whites.
Amid allegations of racism within the NOPD, Curry and black Sgt. Perry White established a platoon model for fairness and professionalism at the 6th District station. “Curry was a ‘cut above’,” said Larry Williams, the black cop whose racial bias suit led to a federal consent decree at the NOPD.
Curry and White bonded as only cops can. Years after White died, Curry ruefully retraced the route of the funeral motorcade that carried his fellow sergeant away from the 6th.
During the 1980s, the drug-fueled deterioration of the inner city did little to diminish Curry’s strong attachment to the 6th District or his personal style of policing.
“I’ve been shot at, stabbed, bitten, punched and everything else,” he often said, describing a career marked by thousands of arrests.
Yet, Curry counseled younger officers to treat all citizens with courtesy and respect – including the “characters.”
“He was very unique,” former NOPD deputy chief David Kent recalls. “He was very non-confrontational – almost metaphysical.” Curry also bewildered police superiors by declining any promotion or assignment that would take him out of the impoverished 6th District.
As a sergeant, Curry served as a supervisor, mentor and trainer to generations of police.
“He broke me in,” says Officer William “Trap” Trepagnier, 65, a 44-year NOPD veteran specializing in fugitive extraditions. “I still use some of the [tactics] he taught me.”
Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005, plunging the city into chaos. Scores of younger cops fled in panic; some joined in the looting.
Curry, then 81, reported for duty at the 6th District – five hours early. Before the floodwaters rose, he picked up stranded storm victims and drove them to safety. Struck on the shoulder by a falling tree branch, Curry continued helping evacuees – until 6th District Capt. Anthony Cannatella ordered him to seek medical treatment.
Curry reported to a hospital for X-rays. With a mischievous grin, he later recalled how he showed a doctor his “good shoulder” – so he could keep working.
Later, Curry and a woman officer splashed through water to handcuff a looting suspect – released after cops learned the jails were flooded. He also recalled the suffering and despair of evacuees at the sweltering Morial Convention Center. “The worst thing that ever happened [to me] was Omaha Beach,” Curry said. “[Katrina] was the second. I’ll never forget Omaha Beach and I’ll never forget this.”
After Katrina, Curry was promoted as the NOPD’s first sergeant major on his 82nd birthday in 2007, also the year of his 60th Carnival as a cop.
Younger officers posed for pictures on parade routes. Not Curry. He worked his 12-hour Carnival shifts, patrolling some of the city’s meanest streets.
He died at Touro Infirmary, one block outside the 6th District. “If Sara Mayo [hospital] was still open, he would have gone there,” Trepagnier says.
Curry’s body lies in state for a day at majestic Gallier Hall. His police badges and war medals are mounted in glass cases. Two stoic cops guard his open casket.
In the adjoining reception rooms, cops with Styrofoam coffee cups pass silver trays laden with doughnuts.
Funerals sometimes surprise. Curry’s obituary revealed a little-known family tie: He was a first cousin of famed vampire novelist Anne Rice.
At noon the next day, Curry’s funeral procession glides quietly past the Canal Street cemetery and a river-bound red streetcar.
Inside St. Patrick’s, silent rows of cops salute the hearse carrying Curry’s flag-draped casket to his final resting place.
A priest waits by the grave. A kilted police piper plays “Amazing Grace.” Trepagnier helps Curry’s widow toward the gravesite.
Sent from Fort Polk, an honor guard from the Army’s 1st 509th Airborne Alpha Company fires a 21-gun salute. A bugler plays “Taps.” Police Chief Warren Riley, wearing white gloves, solemnly presents Curry’s widow with the flag from her husband’s coffin. The chief and the policeman’s widow talk quietly, shielded from the sun by a black umbrella.
“I basically said how much he was loved,” Riley says moments later. “He was a true American hero.” The service ends. The chief leaves the cemetery, holding a red funeral rose. The gravediggers respectfully wait until the grieving are gone, then start to work – like angels in the sun.