They called him 'little joe'

Posted: Oct 18, 2002 12:00 AM
The families of nine people killed in the Washington, D.C., area are not alone in wondering whether their loved ones died at the hands of domestic madmen or foreign terrorists. Next week marks the first anniversary of the deaths of two Washington postal workers murdered by the still-unknown anthrax killers. One of the victims was Joseph Curseen Jr. He had worked 15 years on the nightshift as a mail sorter in the district's Brentwood facility. Family and friends called him "Little Joe." His father, "Big Joe," also worked for the postal service, delivering mail at the Reagan White House. Curseen's good and simple life centered on work, family and faith. He was a devout Catholic who grew up on the rough streets of Southeast Washington. He attended grade school at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and then continued his Catholic education at Gonzaga High School and Marquette University. On his answering machine, he greeted callers with a cheerful message: "Have a blessed day!" According to news accounts, Curseen was the kind of diligent employee who racked up tons of unused sick days. The kind of selfless neighbor who could always be counted on to pick up other people's children after school or sports practice. The kind of community leader who rallied citizens to support speed bumps and safer streets. The kind of dutiful parishioner who led Bible study classes for fellow postal workers and always arrived at Mass first to help out with the smallest tasks. He was, in short, a gentleman, a professional, and a role model in words and deeds. "You could always depend on Joe," said the Rev. Lowell Case, parish priest at the church where Curseen grew up and returned regularly decades later to assist with communion and attend services with his parents. On Oct. 19, 2001, the steadfast postal worker who never called in sick, vomited at work. But, his dad told USA Today, he didn't tell his supervisor. In a world where so many workers search for the smallest excuse to skip out of work, Little Joe Curseen stubbornly resolved to finish the job as he had for 15 straight years. He finished his shift, thinking he had a simple stomach flu, and went to Mass the next day as usual. At Mass, he fainted, and a fellow parishioner called a rescue team to provide medical treatment. But Curseen dismissed them after a few minutes, insisting he was fine. That night, he returned to work. The next day, plagued with nausea and sweating, he and his wife visited an emergency room. He received a chest X-ray and intravenous fluids, and was discharged. By this time, news of the anthrax-laced letters had been buzzing on Capitol Hill for a full week. But no one at the hospital bothered to check Curseen for anthrax symptoms. In the early morning hours of Oct. 22, Curseen collapsed in his bathroom at home. His wife rushed him to the hospital, where he died of inhalational anthrax. The Congressional Black Caucus recently honored Curseen and his colleague, Thomas Morris Jr., who also died in the anthrax attacks; President Bush signed a law last month memorializing the men by renaming the facility where they worked in their honor. But the families still have no final answers from their government about the anthrax killers who terrorized the nation a year ago. "We live in a dangerous world, and those cowards who did this will have a lot to answer for one day," Curseen Sr. noted at the time of his only son's death. "We can only pray no other mother or father or wife has to go through this." The Curseen and Morris families have met the tragedy of unsolved terrorism not with panic or bitterness or self-pity or blame, but with sobriety and faith. They are role models for citizens now gripped in fear and too busy pointing fingers and walking in zigzags to get down on their knees and count their blessings.