Retiring Texas A&M-Galveston professor lives, loves sea

When Stephen Curley first arrived at Texas A&M at Galveston, the Pelican Island campus consisted of two buildings — one that housed all the administrative offices and classrooms, the other a windowless engineering machine shop.

The Galveston County Daily News reports Curley, the school's regents professor of English, was 26 years old and that was 46 years ago.

The campus housed the Moody College of Marine Sciences and Maritime Resources then, home to 109 students training in marine transportation and marine engineering.

Now, Texas A&M University at Galveston enrolls about 2,600 students a year in a wide range of undergraduate and graduate studies, is a well-regarded research center and is one of the select places in the country to study all things sea-related.

"I came the first year they'd expanded outside of marine training," Curley said. "I've had a great career."

Curley, who had earned a doctoral degree from Rice University, came to Galveston to teach English composition, technical writing and introduction to literature. At the time, there was one teacher per academic discipline and there were no full-time professors for history or political science.

Forty-six years later, after creating the school's Maritime Studies degree program, the only bachelor of arts degree available on campus; receiving a National Endowment for the Humanities grant; writing or editing five books, including "Aggies by the Sea," the official history of the school, published in 2005; and garnering practically every known teaching award at the campus and university system level, Curley is on the verge of retiring.

On April 17, the university will honor him with a retirement reception at the campus waterfront pavilion and he'll teach through the end of the semester in May.

Curley's cozy office in the Department of Liberal Studies reflects his varied interests: the sea, his grandchildren, pirates, science fiction, film, the literature of the sea, watercolor painting and sea chanteys, the folk songs of sailors.

Explaining what a sea chantey is — a work song connected to the age of sail — Curley breaks into one in a booming voice, "Haul Away Joe," a song best heard in an Irish pub but one that translates well to the classroom. Curley used to bring in Smithsonian Folkways recordings for his students in his Literature of the Sea class, but after plucking along on guitar for a number of years, finally got up the nerve to perform in class.

"The first time I did it, I got an ovation," he said.

Curley's delight in teaching and in the subject matter he teaches are on full display. A handmade diorama of a pirates' ship, populated by Lego pirates, occupies one shelf on a wall of bookcases.

A sign beneath states: "Work like a captain. Play like a pirate."

Curley earned his sea legs and honed the craft of teaching over the summers he taught aboard the Texas Clipper, Texas A&M University's maritime training ship, he said.

"I loved that ship," he said. "It was the longest serving ship in the American Merchant Marine and was retired out of Brownsville, sunk to make a reef."

Curley's teaching adventures aboard ship took him to the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, across Europe and through the Panama Canal to Lima, Peru, — 10 weeks at sea before email, when a postcard might be delivered a month later and telephone calls were prohibitively expensive.

"For somebody who couldn't afford to travel like that, it was a great adventure," he said.

Progress at the Texas A&M University at Galveston campus has been a point of pride and pleasure for Curley, he said.

"When I came, the school was, in a sense, in its infancy," he said. "By the late '80s it was ranked nationally and known internationally. The students and faculty are stellar."

Curley will retire to working on his watercolors, continuing to pluck away on the guitar and spending more time with his grandchildren.

"I'm looking forward to puttering around, gardening," he said.

"It's time. I'm a graduating senior. This is my commencement."


Information from: The Galveston County Daily News,

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