Wayne Curry battles lung cancer with humor, chemotherapy and activism


Former Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry at his home in Upper Marlboro on May 22. His portrait is to the left on the wall. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

He has lost 50 pounds since he was diagnosed with lung cancer in August. And he uses the words “potentially fatal” when he discusses his illness.

But when the phone rings in the kitchen of Wayne K. Curry’s home, the man who presided over the dramatic transformation of Prince George’s County and made history as the region’s first African American county executive flashes his trademark humor.

“I must owe somebody some money,” joked Curry, 63, who served as the Prince George’s County executive from 1994 to 2004 and became the symbol of its emergence as one of the country’s most affluent majority black jurisdictions.

Wearing a white baseball cap, he answers the phone in what he calls his “Elmer Fudd voice,” in case it’s a hospital billing clerk.

“When you get sick you will understand,” said the longtime smoker. “It’s like, ‘Man, you didn’t really call me up for $30? But this is how hospital billing works. They call you up and say, ‘Send me money.’ I say, ‘What for?’ They say, ‘I don’t know exactly, but it says here you owe me money.’ I say, ‘Okay. As soon as you can tell me what for, I will pay you.’” He laughs again.


Wayne Curry, senior prince at Bladensburg High School. (1968 Blandensburg High School Yearbook)

The calls have riled his activist instincts, prompting a critique of the health-care system. “If I walked down the hall and said, ‘Give me $30.’ What would your instinct be? ‘Why do I owe you $30?’ ”

Not that Curry, a well-heeled lawyer and developer, doesn’t have the $30. The son of a shop teacher and a secretary, Curry grew up in Cheverly at a time when Prince George’s was majority white and had a long history of hostility toward blacks. He experienced that racism firsthand, when he helped to integrate county schools as a child.

Curry went on to earn a law degree from the University of Maryland in 1980 while working for former Prince George’s executive Winfield Kelly. By the time Curry ran for office in 1994, Prince George’s had flipped from majority white to majority black. African Americans now make up 65 percent of its 900,000 residents, census figures show.

During his 10 years as county executive, Curry advocated more upscale development in the county, laying the groundwork for National Harbor, negotiating a deal to create Bowie Town Center and persuading Jack Kent Cooke, then the owner of the Washington Redskins, to build a new stadium in Landover, without using taxpayer money.

Through it all, Curry smoked — sometimes several packs a day — until he quit 11 years ago, he said.

Today, Curry lives with his wife, Sheila, and two children, 20 and 18, on a street named after him in an Upper Marlboro neighborhood of imposing houses on huge lots that he co-developed. His home sits behind ornate black gates and features a circular driveway and a carriage house. Inside, the marble foyer showcases a portrait of Curry by Simmie Lee Knox, who painted the White House portraits of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

After leaving office, Curry worked “of counsel” to William H. Murphy Jr., a prominent trial lawyer in Baltimore, then as the president of NAI The Michael Cos., an international real estate consulting firm. Now he has turned his legal skills to debating about the health-care system and has shifted his political acumen to raising awareness about lung cancer and its mortality rates, particularly among African Americans.

“I want to publicize the rates of affliction, the severity and the existence of lung versus other cancers,” Curry said, taking a sip of water at his kitchen table. “It afflicts black people more widely.”

The American Lung Association reports that cigarette smoking disproportionately affects African Americans, who have a higher risk of lung cancer than white smokers. In addition, the association claims, tobacco companies target African Americans and Hispanics to help offset declining sales among white smokers.

“African American communities have been bombarded with cigarette advertising,” the association reported.

Among African Americans, “lung cancer is more present and more virulent. But nobody tells them,” Curry said. “I want to take a megaphone and say, ‘Hey, dude, I’m talking about you. Here’s Exhibit A,’ ” he said, pointing to himself.

Curry said lung cancer, for which he is receiving chemotherapy treatments, is his new call to service.

“Lung cancer and the good Lord gave me something to do,” he said. “They say there are two important dates in your life: the day you were born and the day you find out why you were born. I’m going to use whatever notoriety I have left to try to help address that and bring attention to the issue.”

He smiled. “Ironically, I still have cachet to do it.”

Curry’s name remains synonymous with the county 10 years after he completed his second term as county executive.

Howard Stone, an administrator who worked in Curry’s administration, said he admires his friend’s efforts to raise awareness about the dangers of smoking. “He is still showing up at this stage of his life,” Stone said.

Since learning of Curry’s diagnosis, Stone said, he has quit smoking cigars. Curry’s cancer “made me realize how you have to make the most of the time you have,” he said. “When you look at a gravestone, you see two dates — the day you were born and the day of your death. But what is most important is the dash in between of what you have accomplished. Wayne has done so much to transform this county and make this county respected in the Washington region.”

Despite his decades of smoking, Curry said, he was surprised by the diagnosis.

“I used to be full of piss and vinegar,” he said. “I thought, the odds are in my favor. It will happen to the other guy. Not me.”

Now, Curry said, he sees his diagnosis as a blessing as much as a challenge. “You get to talk to people you love and to say, ‘Man, I love you,’ which you would never say if you were not dealing with something potentially fatal,” he said. People call him up and say, “ ‘I hope you let bygones be bygones.’ ”

That is all Curry has to say for this morning. He is tired.

“If I can bring attention to this disparity, I will be doing something worth doing,” Curry adds. “People think they are invincible, until they are not.”

DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.
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