Harry Clarke “Duke” Curtis started his career washing cars at the family business: the Hamlar-Curtis Funeral Home & Crematory.
“My brother started washing cars when he was a teenager and he never left,” his sister Cecil Maria Curtis Otey said. “My daddy was a clean car man and he taught his son to take care of those vehicles.”
What started as a simple job eventually developed into a passion for work at the funeral home. Duke Curtis took over his father’s business as president in 2003 until he retired this year. His job at the funeral home, and service to the community, introduced him to hundreds of people in the Roanoke Valley and established him as a figure of the African American community.
Curtis died Monday at the age of 63 after battling cancer for 13 years.
Otey said the family considered him their “oak tree” because of his strength and determination.
“He went through so many battles with his illness,” Otey said. “But he was strong just like an oak tree. He kept pulling through.”
Named after his late grandfather, Curtis grew up with three sisters and was the only son and grandson in the family. His nickname, Duke, was meant to signify royalty, Otey said.
“He was the apple of my parent’s eye,” she said. “From the day he was born to the day he passed, he was ‘the duke’.”
Curtis grew up in Roanoke and attended William Fleming High School. His late mother, businesswoman Marilyn Curtis, served on the Roanoke School Board and worked in many community and business organizations. She got her son involved in church and community activities, including being the preacher in a Tom Thumb wedding. He also escorted her to community and business affairs when his father was unavailable.
Duke’s father, Harry Cecil Curtis founded Hamlar-Curtis Funeral Home with Lawrence Harrison Hamlar in 1952. The funeral home, located on Moorman Avenue, has undergone multiple expansions over the years.
Duke worked at the funeral home for more than 35 years and served as its president for 16 years. But his sister said he wasn’t always interested in getting into the family business. Instead, he wanted to move to California to pursue music or electronics. Eventually, he opted to create a legacy at Hamlar-Curtis, she said.
Otey said he enjoyed working with others and wanted the opportunity to connect with people through the funeral home.
Curtis served as a member of the board of directors of the old Hunton YWCA and as president of the Virginia Morticians Association. He worked with numerous other business and community organizations and coached sandlot football, basketball and baseball.
His work around the Roanoke Valley earned him the Roanoke NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year. His wife Pat and his daughter attended the ceremony.
“Everybody loved the duke,” Otey said. “He and his wife Pat were to me an exemplary image for all young and old people as to what a complete family life is all about. They loved each other deeply and they were always there for whatever the children needed.”
In 2013, Duke’s friends threw him a celebration to honor his achievements. A Roanoke Times article about the event said his friends described Duke as “genuine and passionate”, but also humble whenever he received recognition.
“I see others get honored — preachers and important people,” he said in the article. “I don’t think I deserve it. There was probably a time when I was younger that I thought I was deserving of that and more but God has placed me in a situation to do my life dream — being helpful to people. I’m so thankful.”