In Memoriam: Richard T. Curtis

by Donna Talarico

By: Staff
Headshot of Richard T. Curtis, flanked by blurred images of Cornell's campus and clock tower.

Richard T. Curtis, senior lecturer at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business (2003)

Richard T. Curtis, senior lecturer at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, passed away June 9, 2024.

Curtis’ career at Cornell spanned 34 years, and during that time he taught more than 8,000 students in both SC Johnson College and the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Honored for his teaching many times; his most recent award was the Louis and Edith Edgerton Career Teaching Award, which recognizes outstanding career-long advising and instruction.

In addition to teaching, from 2004 to 2013 Curtis served as director or co-director of the AEM Certificate in Business Management, a summer program geared toward non-business majors. He also served as the faculty advisor of many student organizations, including a few that involved one of his other favorite pastimes: ballroom dancing.

A Caring Mentor

Perhaps best known for his Introduction to Finance course, Curtis’ former students would agree his classes were rigorous and memorable.

Mitch Rose ’10, in his nomination letter for the Edgerton Award, wrote, “I could tell how serious he took his class… and this seriousness motivated me to put forth my 100%-percent effort into learning finance. I wholeheartedly mean this: I am in debt to Professor Curtis for instilling these interests in me and teaching me the foundations I needed to succeed.”

For many students torn between majors or career paths, Curtis’ class was often the deciding factor. That was the case for Bailey Pecor ’16, who was majoring in engineering when he encountered his first finance class.

“His teaching and passion stoked my fire in finance, and I haven’t looked back,” said Pecor.

Curtis was known to hold extensive office hours—arriving to campus early and often staying late—ensuring he was accessible to all students. He was often commended for taking time to get to know names and details about all of his students, even in classes as large as 200.

Pecor, who also served as a teaching assistant for Curtis, recalls his commitment to the material and to his students. He said, “I distinctly remember multiple lectures in which students would line up with questions at the end of class and he would provide thoughtful and insightful answers for as long as was necessary to ensure their understanding.”

A Dynamic, Engaging Educator

Colleague Pedro David Pérez, senior lecturer at the Dyson School, said Curtis was adept at keeping his courses current and relevant.

“[Rich made] extraordinary efforts to stay on top of a field that has experienced enormous public turmoil….,” he said. “I have never met a committed student in one of Rich’s courses who has not been both challenged and enlightened by his deep knowledge of the material and its practical application.”

Rose agreed. He recalled learning from Curtis during the Great Recession of 2008. “Professor Curtis leaned into this opportunity. Every class, he would read headlines of the Wall Street Journal and describe how unprecedented these times were. He would adapt his lessons to intertwine real-world experiences.”

His “toughness” was an asset, Pecor added. His curriculum was ambitious and, to cover so much material, he enforced a structured classroom setting.

“Because Professor Curtis was a ‘strict’ teacher, his students were able to get the full experience from his class,” said Pecor. “However, he balanced that strict facade by inserting humor and entertainment.”

Many past students fondly recall his final lecture of the semester, which often featured magic tricks, songs, and even reading excerpts from teacher-rating websites to poke fun at himself. It’s experiences like these that led to his finance course achieving “legendary status” among many students and alumni.

To say his courses were memorable is an understatement for Kevin Scelfo ’05. After two decades, Curtis’ practical, engaging lessons are still fresh in his mind.

“I can recall specific classes and lessons, such as when Professor Curtis pretended to get a ‘margin call’ from his broker…. There’s not another one of my classes during my time at Cornell that I can remember at that level of detail,” he wrote. “And the takeaway lesson is that he just had a different way of teaching. And it worked.”

A Lasting Impression

Scores of Cornell alumni consider Rich Curtis’ Finance Review Manual not only an 800-page course packet-turned-reference book, but also a treasured possession.

With more than 8,000 students of all majors passing through Curtis’ classrooms, there’s an incredible shared experience among this subgroup of Cornell alumni.

Scelfo is always on the look-out for these connections. “To this day, when meeting or interviewing current Cornell students, I’ll ask if they’ve taken a Curtis class. It’s a staple of the business program.”

View Richard T. Curtis’ obituary and tribute video.