(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the Annual Alumni Luncheon and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)
The voice and personality that launched Don Curtis ’63 to success in the fickle field of radio broadcasting doesn’t turn off when he goes off the air. Which explains why, when you call his home phone, you hear a message on the answering machine from “the Curtis family dog,” complete with imitation woofs, that might make you forget the message you wanted to leave.
A tape of Don, at age 15, auditioning for his first part-time radio announcing job in Kings Mountain tells a different story. He didn’t get the gig, but the station owner agreed to sell him an hour of airtime each week, and Don discovered he could resell it to merchants in his hometown of Bessemer City, which had no radio station, for more than he paid for it. He sold the ad spots, collected payments, produced the program and served as on-air talent — his skills were improving rapidly in such baptism by fire. Thus was born a media mogul.
After he received his degree from Carolina, Don, backed by business people in Gastonia, organized Cablevision and bought cable TV franchises in several small towns in the state. In 1967, he sold his operation to a cable corporation and built his first radio station, in Cherryville. He bought ever-larger stations in North Carolina, pioneering standalone FM stations; Hispanic, country and urban formats; and computerized traffic and billing systems.
And all these years later, Don still can’t step away from the mike. He hosts a weekly four-hour oldies show — his personal collection of 45s is impressive — and an hour-long public affairs talk show, interviewing experts on a wide range of topics. His longtime friend Tony Rand ’61 said Don hosts the talk show to educate himself as much as the public. “He has an inquisitive and inquiring mind,” Tony said. “He wants to talk about what’s going on.”
UNC journalism school Dean Susan King said that through his programming, Don keeps a community “glued together by the voices of people who care about what goes on in the state.”
“He understands local radio’s power within a community,” Susan said, “and he understands the changing world of media.”
A member of the N.C. Broadcasters’ Hall of Fame, Don served on the board of directors of the association for more than 30 years and, a past president, received its Distinguished Service Award. The state recognized him with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, and UNC honored him with the Davie Award.
He shows his allegiance to UNC as a member of the Board of Trustees, the journalism school’s board of advisers and the board of the UNC Educational Foundation. Previously, he served on UNC’s Health Services advisory board and the search committees that selected Chancellor Carol Folt and Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham. He belonged to the UNC-TV Foundation board for 20 years and chaired the GAA Board of Directors. Through the Curtis Foundation, he has sponsored an annual radio telethon that has raised more than $10 million for UNC Children’s Hospital over the past decade.
The auditorium of Memorial Hall bears the names of two prominent donors to its elaborate 2005 renovation — the Beasley-Curtis Auditorium honors Don Curtis and George Beasley, both of whom are prominent in broadcasting in North Carolina.
Don established the Curtis Awards at the journalism school to support students’ activities outside the classroom. The awards, totaling $20,000 this year, fund everything from filming a documentary about health care in Malawi to sending a student to the annual meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists founded by the revered late journalism professor Chuck Stone or some other extracurricular project that could launch a student’s career.
Don is a great storyteller. Just ask him about the time actress Julie London came to campus in the early ’60s, and he managed to be the one to squire her around. He’s an ardent fan of Tar Heel football. His home football game streak has continued for well over 300 games since 1959, though men’s basketball has had a greater effect on his life — that’s where he met his wife, the former Barbara Hoffman.
Other than little asides, like trying to pass himself off as the family dog on his answering machine, Don has developed a reputation as a man of deep insight and sound judgment. Susan King said she can rely on him for “the straight scoop.”
“I can trust what he says,” she said. “That’s a top commodity, for people to be able to trust what you say.”
The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal has been awarded since 1978 to alumni and others who have provided outstanding service to the GAA and/or to the University. The award is presented at the annual Alumni Luncheon on the weekend of reunions and Commencement in May. Recipients of the 2014 Distinguished Service Medals are W. Lowry Caudill ’79 of Durham, Donald W. Curtis ’63 of Raleigh, Henry E. Frye ’59 (JD) of Greensboro, Julia Sprunt Grumbles ’75 of Chapel Hill and Dr. Hugh A. McAllister Jr. ’66 (MD) of Houston.