“We have a very, very, very dangerous job. We have to do all that we can to keep our citizens safe, as well as ourselves.”
– NOPD Superintendent, Warren Riley, following the death of Officer Nicola Cotton who was shot while trying to apprehend a suspected rapist, January 28, 2008
They make good-natured jokes about Sgt. Major Manuel Curry of the New Orleans Police Department “breaking the bank” when he finally does retire and about Mayor Ray Nagin having to “go out and auction off half the city” to finance Curry’s retirement fund. That payoff could look like the entire budget for some small- to medium-sized affluent western nations when it finally does come.
The face of the veteran of nearly 62 years wearing a badge as the nation’s longest serving cop bursts into a wide grin as he sits back on the second floor of the 6th District police station on Martin Luther King Boulevard and contemplates his seemingly interminable reign as one of New Orleans’ finest.
It is a beautiful sunshiny day outside, not a cloud in a powder blue sky and Sgt. Curry is still on the job. All is right with the world.
A young black boy of about 10 pulls up short on a skateboard outside the station on the corner of MLK Boulevard and South Rampart Street. “Where’s that man who’s always smilin’?” the kid asks. “Where’s that Mr. Curry? He’s older than my daddy. My daddy says shoooooooooo … that Mr. Curry is older’n God hisself.” Eighty-three years old to be exact. All spit ’n polish with brass and gold on his sleeves and chest .
“Every now and then somebody ask me about retiring,” Curry says. “But they all know what answer they’re going to get, so most have just quit asking.”
To be sure, Curry isn’t given cushy desk jobs. He hits the streets just like everybody else in the 6th. In fact, when word went out that 24-year-old Officer Nicola Cotton (“A young lady I liked very much!” he says) had been shot, Curry was one of the first police officers on the scene; there to assist and there to do his job.
“I saw her lying there,” Curry says. “God, it was horrible. Her arms were thrown back … She had been shot so many times.” Curry’s eyes well up quickly and he fights back tears. “It’s something you don’t get over. I mean she was so young, her whole life in front of her. And, I’ve been doing this for so long.”
Curry tries to push the memories of that day from his mind but they come rushing to the fore each morning at 7:30 when he walks into that gray, blockhouse-like police station.
When his shift is done and thoughts such as those of Officer Cotton and the narcotics and thefts and assaults that sometimes seem to engulf the 6th District are put away for another day, Manny Curry heads to Jackie, his wife of 51 years, who’s waiting for him in their home on St. Thomas Street in the heart of the Irish Channel. On the weekends, Curry and Jackie head for a place they have on the Northshore, light-years from the streets of New Orleans.
“How many men can say they’ve been doing a job like this for this long without any major injuries?” Curry asks as if floating a balloon filled with answers to such questions. “I’ve been stabbed several times but nothing really life threatening. I’ve been shot at a couple of times … but never hit. I had a dog bite me once … and the dog died. Years ago, I was trying to get the cuffs on a guy and he was giving me a rough time. We thought we had him quieted down then he stomped on my foot. I still have a few problems from that but nothing serious.” He continues, “In fact, the most serious injury I ever had came during World War II. I went ashore attached to the 29th Infantry Division at Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion. I made it onto the beach okay and a couple of weeks later … a German 88 [mm] shell went off and got me. I woke up in an aid station and a week later they were talking about sending me to some other aid station, I made them send me back to my unit. I wanted to be in the front. I wanted to be with my guys.”
In addition to the chest full of military medals given him by the U.S., Curry received the French Legion Of Honor – 60 years after D-Day.
“I was invited to go to France with a group of veterans to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the invasion,” Curry says. “That was in 2004. There were kings and queens there from all over the world. President Bush led the American delegation there. We visited palaces and ate like royalty. In fact, they treated all of us like royalty. One hundred U.S. veterans were chosen to receive the Legion of Honor.
President Chirac [French past president, Jacques Chirac] pinned the medals on us and made a comment to the crowd about each of us. When he got to me he said, ‘And Monsieur Curry is the longest serving police officer in the United States … and today, the longest serving police officer in Paris.’”
Curry lifts the Legion of Honor medal from his chest to give a visitor a better view. The French medal stands out from the sea of brass and gold on Curry’s chest and rests next to his gold, well-worn NOPD badge that’s covered by a black field to honor Nicola Cotton.
It is growing late in the afternoon and the whirring of the kid on the skateboard outside has long since faded away.
Manuel Curry continues to revel in the tales of the street and in stories of those terrible days after Hurricane Katrina when he refused an order to evacuate the city and remained on duty because, “I wanted to be with my men. I wasn’t going to leave them.” To accomplish that he had to live and sleep for a month in a limousine in the parking lot of what came to be known as “Fort Wal-Mart.” He tells of how things were “in the old days” when he first signed on as a cop during the early days of the late mayor DeLesseps S. Morrison’s first administration in 1946. He tells of brother and sister officers who made the supreme sacrifice like Cotton. He talks about the good guys and the bad guys and the ones who didn’t get away. He tells of the “thousands of arrests” he’s made and you just know he could go on and on all evening.
There is still police work to do on this day, so Sgt. Major Manuel Curry excuses himself and gets on with getting the bad guys. After that, it’s home to the Irish Channel and to Jackie. And who knows, one day in the future – “The distant future, I hope,” he says – Curry will fill out his reports and sign out for the last time and drive home to Jackie and do what all retired policemen do.