John ‘Jack’ Curry, Northeastern’s fifth president, remembered as visionary in higher education

Headshot of John Curry, Northeastern’s fifth president.
Former Northeastern President John A. “Jack” Curry. Photo by Northeastern University

John A. “Jack” Curry, a former public school teacher who rose from admissions counselor to popular university president during his three decades at Northeastern, died Friday at his home in Saugus, Massachusetts. He was 88 years old.

Curry will be remembered as the president who made Northeastern “smaller and better” at a time when public institutions, such as UMass-Boston, were gaining in popularity.

“As the visionary and architect of the ‘smaller and better’ agenda, Jack Curry was a giant who laid a foundation for decades of success at Northeastern following his presidency,” said current President Joseph E. Aoun. “It was an honor to get to know Jack when I arrived at Northeastern. I valued his insights, advice and good humor. The entire Northeastern family, and the world of higher education, owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.”

During his tenure from 1989 to 1996, Curry focused Northeastern’s programs to maximize the academic achievement, career development, and social and intellectual growth of the student, while raising the university’s research and academic standards.

A native of Lynn, Massachusetts, and 1954 graduate of Lynn English High School, Curry earned his bachelor’s degree from Northeastern in 1956 and his master’s degree from the university in 1960.

Before earning his doctorate in education from Boston University in 1980, Curry taught elementary and secondary school in Bourne, Saugus and Newton, Massachusetts. His first administrative position was as an assistant principal of a junior high school in Saugus.

Curry started his career at Northeastern as a co-op student, working under then-President Carl Ell and Provost William White. Curry returned to the university in 1963, serving as director of admissions, vice president for administration, and executive vice president before becoming the first alumnus to serve as president.

William Fowler Jr. is a distinguished professor of history, emeritus, at Northeastern. Like Curry, he also received his undergraduate degree from the university. In fact, Curry was Fowler’s advisor when he was a student in the ’60s.

That relationship continued for over 50 years.

“Northeastern has had seven presidents. I’ve known six and worked for five,” Fowler said Sunday. “And Jack—everyone called him Jack—was the most affable, friendly fellow you’ll ever meet. Everybody on campus knew him and liked him. He was my president, but most importantly, he was my friend.” 

It was Curry’s vision during the ’90s that set Northeastern on a new, more competitive strategic direction. During his tenure, Northeastern built a new science and engineering center, a state-of-the-art classroom building, a recreation complex, and added undergraduate and graduate programs. He also deepened the university’s commitment to the city of Boston.

As part of his “smaller, better” strategy for Northeastern, Curry addressed budget issues during a national recession and enrollment crisis. He reduced class sizes, hired new faculty, emphasized interdisciplinary studies, established a research fund, and expanded study abroad opportunities.

“I would argue that Jack Curry faced the greatest challenge that Northeastern ever encountered,” Fowler said. “Jack guided us—and I mean guided us!—through very, very turbulent waters.”

That’s because Curry knew everyone—and everyone knew Curry.

“We trusted Jack,” Fowler said. “He was not a cheerleader. This was not a time for cheering, but Jack brought us through that storm, and at the end of it, we were in a much better situation.”

Under Curry’s leadership, participation in Northeastern’s honors program grew from 150 in 1989 to 1,250 in 1996 as the university quickly became a destination for global learners. Curry also revitalized co-operative education at Northeastern. 

“He brought in new people, new kinds of job opportunities and challenged us,” Fowler said. “Jack was always challenging us to do better.”

When the university was raising money to build Snell Library in the late ’80s, Curry and Kenneth Ryder, the president before him, attended all 60 organizational meetings.

Yes, all 60.

“They personally came to welcome the participants. They were at every meeting. It was incredible. The commitment that those two men had was incredible. That was Jack’s strength—his commitment to the university.”

In 1993, Curry hosted commencement speaker Bill Clinton, the only sitting president to address Northeastern graduates. The following year, he awarded boxing legend Muhammad Ali an honorary doctorate for public service.

When Curry announced his retirement, former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, a political science professor at Northeastern, said, “This place is humming, and a lot of it has to do with Jack’s leadership.” 

Following his retirement from Northeastern, Curry authored nine books. In his first book, “Running in Lane One,” published in 2008, Curry is said to be the only living college president to have taught elementary, middle and high school, and at a major national research university before becoming its leader.

Curry’s wife of over 60 years, Marcia, passed away in 2017. The couple were high school sweethearts and had three children, Robert Curry, Timothy Curry and Susan Brown, who has been Northeastern’s associate director of parent programs and services since 1983.

The university named the student center, the John A. and Marcia E. Curry Student Center, in 1996. The student center’s position at the crossroads of campus activity is emblematic of the Currys’ deep involvement in community life at Northeastern.

Calling hours will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Bisbee Porcella Funeral Home, 549 Lincoln Ave., Saugus, Massachusetts. A funeral service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at Blessed Sacrament Church, 14 Summer St., Saugus.

David Nordman is executive editor of Northeastern Global News. Follow him on Twitter @davenordman.