The Man Who Knew Too Soon?

Eight years ago Tom Curtis reported that AIDS could have been spread by an experimental polio vaccine grown on monkey kidneys. Scientists sniffed. Journalists scoffed. The story died. Now, a new book says the theory wasn't so stupid after all.

Curtis spent two and a half years as a general assignments reporter at the Chronicle and says he there learned the lesson, while covering Preston Smith's 1970 gubernatorial election, that there are investigative stories too close to home for a major metropolitan daily to report.

In 1972, while Curtis covered the Houston Independent School District beat for the Chronicle, he was interviewed by Mike Levy for the job of editor on the magazine Levy hoped to soon begin publishing. Of Levy's prospects at the time, Curtis says, "I underestimated him considerably." As it turned out, Levy just walked down the hall and hired HISD's public relations man, Bill Broyles, as Texas Monthly's first editor.

Curtis moved on to the Fort Worth Press, where he envisioned himself in the footsteps of Blood and Money author Tommy Thompson, and worked his way up from the police beat to assistant city editor before moving back to Houston and taking a job as news director at radio station KPFT, freelancing articles to The New York Times to make ends meet during months when KPFT, as he remembers, couldn't always come up with his $50-per-week salary. When The Washington Post courted Curtis with the promise of bylines (New York Times stringers got none), he opened that paper's Houston bureau.

In 1977 Curtis sold versions of "The New Gang In Town," about murderous abuses within the Houston Police Department, to Texas Monthly and The Washington Post. The national media followed Curtis's road map with a slew of stories that cemented Houston's longtime reputation as a hotbed of overzealous policing. Then-HPD chief Harry Caldwell called Curtis a "yellow journalist" on television, the HPD newsletter Badge & Gun denounced him, and Curtis started thinking he was hearing strange clicking noises on his phone line, though he never was sure.

In 1978 Curtis got the opportunity to help launch Houston City magazine. At Houston City Curtis became an editor, and a prickly inspiration, to a number of younger journalists who would go on to prominence. Houston's Mimi Swartz, whose professional trajectory has moved from Houston City to Texas Monthly to the New Yorker to Talk magazine, says Curtis made a journalist of her.

"He taught me how to ask all the right questions. Just about being tough and being persistent and not accepting the view as presented by powerful people. I mean, he made me rewrite stories six times, and I'm afraid they needed it. He was willing to make an investment in young talent, which very few people are."

When Houston City was sold two years later, new ownership encouraged Curtis to explore other opportunities, so he turned freelance again, selling "The Throwdown," about Houston cops planting a gun on Randy Webster, to Texas Monthly. That article was optioned and later became a CBS made-for-TV movie, The Killing of Randy Webster, starring Hal Holbrook and Sean Penn. Curtis says he got "twenty or twenty-five thousand" dollars for the story, which he split with the Webster family, using the rest to make a down payment, with his wife, writer Sandy Sheehy, on a house in Houston's Eastwood subdivision.

By the time The Killing of Randy Webster aired in early 1981, Houston City had been sold again, this time to a Dallas company, and Curtis was hired as editor a second time.

"I got a chance to get back on the horse that threw me," he remembers. That chance lasted about a year and a half, before Curtis and Houston City parted company once again, Curtis says, over questions of investigative freedom.

In 1982 Curtis got hired on as Houston bureau chief for the late Dallas Times-Herald, where he spent five years. Curtis remembers his reporting on convicted murderer Clarence Brandley -- reporting that led to Brandley's release from prison -- as a personal highlight of this period.

In 1987, the same year that Houston City died its final death, Curtis left the Times-Herald to join Texas Monthly as a senior editor, which despite the title is a writing position. The money and the relative security were nice, and the Monthly was a prestigious address.

For most journalists, including those few blessed with both luck and talent, the preceding résumé would constitute a distinguished career. For Tom Curtis, for better or for worse, it was just background.

Three years later, in 1990, Tom Curtis was in the midst of researching what would turn out to be his last story for Texas Monthly.

"Ultimately," he recalls, "I was ready to be doing something else. And I think they were probably ready for me to be doing something else, too."

But even before Curtis left the Monthly, he had begun experiencing one of those rare periods of flow that sometimes envelop creative people, when far-flung pieces of complicated puzzles converge, announcing their meanings in clear tones, and time seems to stand still in a continuous present of focus and commitment. When everything, basically, just seems to come together.

"It's more fun than anything I can think of, to do a good story. It's almost," Curtis says now, "like you're on a surfboard."

At a perhaps fateful moment, however, Curtis was more precisely on an airplane. He was flying to Arizona to research the background of an obscure and deceased Texas inventor by the name of James Martin, who, Curtis had discovered, was the patent-holder of a simple biological process that held promise, Curtis wrote in his finished story, as "a wondrous elixir that may undo much of the damage man has done to his planet."

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