MONTPELIER, Vt. — Careening down a Vermont mountain on the back of an all-terrain vehicle driven by a 16-year-old boy, without having taken the time to find a helmet, John Curran was looking to reach the town of Rochester, isolated by flooding left by the remnants of Hurricane Irene. Mainly he was looking for a story.
Curran, who died Saturday of a heart attack at age 54 as he mowed the lawn at his Montpelier home, will be remembered as someone who moved fast when a big story was breaking and as a devoted and proud husband and father. He carried a cub reporter's excitement and enthusiasm into his sixth decade, still thrilled by the slices of life he got to witness as a journalist.
He was known among his Associated Press colleagues — he had worked in Charleston, W.Va., Boston and Atlantic City, N.J., before coming to Vermont — for his dedication to the job and for a beautiful writing style that seemed to come from a great ear for what people were telling him.
"John found joy in reporting about people," said Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the AP. "From the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey to the mountain communities of Vermont, he loved nothing better than meeting people and telling their stories to the world. We will be poorer indeed without him."
Evan Berland, AP's deputy editor for the East who worked with Curran in New Jersey, said Curran talked about stories with colleagues with "a wide smile and sometimes a disbelieving shake of his head, and it was easy to see why the people he interviewed opened up to him and that the news was endlessly fascinating to him."
He wrote about the height of beauty, as when the Miss America pageant moved from Atlantic City after more than eight decades.
"Before the slot machines, before the cheap buffets, before The Donald, there was Miss America," Curran wrote then. "Born of a Boardwalk publicity stunt, she accidentally became an American icon, thanks to years of televised crownings watched by little girls staying up late to see the black-and-white telecast from Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. For 84 years, Atlantic City was Miss America — and Miss America was Atlantic City."
And when the news was harsh, he could cut the ugliest of human events down to their essence. Just this past week, this appeared under his byline: "''A drifter admitted Thursday to beating a 79-year-old woman to death with a hammer as she made biscuits in her home."
The AP's news leader in Vermont as correspondent in charge of the Montpelier bureau in an age of dwindling media resources, Curran pushed his staff of three writers and a photographer to work harder but set the pace by working harder than anyone else himself. He balanced extraordinary drive with compassion, telling staffers with health or personal problems, "Your health comes first" or "Your family comes first."
As "the new guy," Curran was greeted with some skepticism when he arrived in the summer of 2006 in a state where seventh-generation Vermonters debate with fifth-generation Vermonters about who's really a native. Eyes would roll among Statehouse press corps veterans when maple syrup or some other Vermont stereotype crept into his early stories.
But Curran was a quick study, and it wasn't long before he developed a deeper understanding of his adopted home. Vermont has an extraordinary communitarian nature. Town Meeting Day, when residents gather each March to decide whether to pave a road or put a new roof on Town Hall, is still a state holiday. Neighbors help one another in times of trouble, a fact on ample display in Irene's wake.
"The Aug. 28 storm knocked out hundreds of roads and bridges in the state, damaged or destroyed more than 700 homes and left some Vermont towns stranded," Curran wrote on Sept. 10. "But it has also generated countless of acts of kindness, from community house-guttings to citizen-led road rebuilding projects, from missions of mercy for stranded homeowners to volunteer days cleaning the mud out of schools. In the process, it has burnished a civility that some up here refer to as 'the Vermont way.'"
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin issued a statement Sunday on Curran's death.
"Like so many Vermonters who knew John Curran, I am shocked and saddened by his death. John was an award-winning journalist who was thoughtful, thorough, and fair. My staff and I enjoyed working with John, and we mourn his loss. My thoughts are with his family, friends, and co-workers — John will be impossible to replace," Shumlin said.
Born in New York City and raised near Buffalo, N.Y., as the son of the former Mary Sullivan and Bob Curran, a longtime columnist for the Buffalo News, Curran grew to be a devoted family man. He often spoke of his wife, Tricia, as "my beautiful bride," and brimmed with pride about his son, Patrick, a sophomore at Georgetown University, and his younger daughters, Julie and Mary Grace.
On the way, he served time in the U.S. Army and got a journalism degree from St. Bonaventure University in Olean, N.Y.
Curran loved jokes and puns, had an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music and always added a big charge of energy to a room, colleagues said.
"For years, he started every morning with a corny joke for his colleagues, but there was never a doubt he was serious about his craft," Berland said. "On the rare days Curran didn't file a news story in New Jersey, he often produced two the next. 'It's my Catholic guilt,' he would say, and was apt to add that the AP wasn't paying him to not have stories on the wire."
Tricia Curran said calling hours would be held at the Guare & Sons Funeral Home in Montpelier from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, with a funeral Mass at St. Augustine's Church in Montpelier at 11 a.m. Thursday.