Wayne Curry, puffing on a Cuban Cohiba and sipping Johnny Walker Black — that’s how the Prince George’s county executive would unwind after a day’s work. Meet him at Jasper’s in Greenbelt, he’d call to say. And you’d find him at the bar, dressed to the nines in a butter-smooth suit, silk tie loose around the neck, gold links on cuffs embroidered with the initials “WC.”
Curry walked with a “Bladensburg swagger,” as friends called it, a country slick stroll that conveyed his pride as a graduate of Bladensburg High. But even though he embraced the semirural qualities of his suburban homestead, Curry did not like the way many people referred to it as “P.G.” or the way some winced at the mention of it, as if the county was the “ugly brother” of Washington’s five jurisdictional siblings.
During his reign as county executive — from 1994 to 2002 — Curry would put the “Prince” back in Prince George’s.
Curry died Wednesday of lung cancer. He was 63. When he first went into politics, amateur archaeologists were still finding relics from the county’s slave-holding past — leg irons and handcuffs unearthed on the tobacco farms worked by Africans who had been brought up the Patuxent River in the 18th century.
Before he left office, African Americans were living on those same lands — in luxury homes, driving fancy cars, with hired hands tending to their lawns. Curry would emerge as the hard-charging, business-savvy boss of the wealthiest predominately African American county in the country.
I’d met Curry in 1975, when he was an aide to then-County Executive Winfield Kelly.
To get the job with Kelly, Curry needed the blessing of then-state Sen. Tommie Broadwater — the gun-toting black godfather of Prince George’s politics.
John Lally, Kelly’s press secretary at the time, had recommended Curry for the job. The two had attended Bladensburg High together. Lally was a basketball star; Curry was the basketball team manager. In their senior year, Lally ran for student body president and Curry for vice president.
“I asked Wayne if he knew anybody who could put in a good word for him with Tommie,” recalled Lally, now a prominent lawyer in the county. “He said, ‘Heck, Tommie was my babysitter.’ ”
Curry was blessed.
As was his administration. He’d set out to give his county a makeover — in his own image. And succeeded. Even if it wasn’t always pretty.
Prince George’s had too many garden apartments, in Curry’s view, and not enough luxury homes — like the ones in the more-prestigious Montgomery and Fairfax counties. The county wasn’t just losing property tax revenue. As housing in the District became more expensive because of gentrification, more low-income people were crowding into the county’s low-rent apartments.
Suddenly, what had been regarded as “affordable housing” began to look more and more like dilapidated housing to Curry. He put slumlords on notice and quickly followed up by personally overseeing the demolition of run-down housing complexes.
With the push of a plunger wired to sticks of dynamite, Curry was blowing up the “ugly brother” image and making way for the new.
“The thing I can remember most about Wayne is him saying, ‘Don’t check yourself,’ meaning don’t hold yourself back,” Lally said. “Don’t let anybody draw a circle around you. Don’t let them put you in box. Go forward. Try things.”
On one occasion, Curry went to Wall Street to make a case for better credit terms. But the bankers directed their questions to the white accountants who had accompanied Curry to the meeting and ignored him. Suffice it to say that Curry didn’t check himself. He browbeat the bankers for disrespecting him and walked away with a AAA bond rating.
He also swaggered down to Middleburg, Va., hoping to persuade Jack Kent Cooke, then owner of Washington’s NFL team, to build a stadium in Prince George’s. Cooke could be charming, but also crude and condescending.
During the meeting, Cooke apparently went on a tad too long about the quality of the wine being served, as if Curry had never tasted anything better than Ripple.
“If the wine is as good as you say, don’t just give me a glass,” Curry told him. “Give me a bottle.”
Curry did not get the bottle. But he did get the stadium. And, of course, he celebrated, with whisky and a cigar.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.