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July 7, 2014

Maker of history

Veteran, missionary, labor advocate sought to rectify injustices

TERRE HAUTE — A humble man with a heart for helping others is an apt description for Terre Haute resident Curtis B. Culver.

Culver died July 2 at age 94, leaving behind a legacy of missionary work and social involvement. His meetings with presidents, presidential candidates and political movers-and-shakers were well-documented in local and state media outlets during the 1960s and 1970s.

His youngest son, Curtis B. Culver II, told the Tribune-Star on Monday that he was thrilled to find photos of his father at a 1960 campaign stop by John F. Kennedy at the Vigo County Courthouse. And another undated photo shows him with President Lyndon B. Johnson at a gathering of labor union leaders.

The family scrapbook also includes photos of Culver with Sen. Birch Bayh, a letter of thanks from Marvella Bayh, and photos with the 113th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the U.S. Air Force, which was stationed at Hulman Field.

In June 2004, Culver was also honored with a Sagamore of the Wabash award from then-Gov. Joseph Kernan, who recognized him as the state president of the U.S. Federation of Postal Workers in the 1960s.

Culver also had a positive influence on many young people in the 1960s and 1970s, encouraging them to be socially active in public service opportunities. One of those young men, Cliff Lambert, recalled Monday that Culver made a big impact locally by advocating for the economically less-fortunate, and by endorsing labor organizations, service clubs and organizations such as Big Brother/Big Sister, and the Vigo County Mental Health Association.

“I remember that he would introduce me as a graduate student who lived in the Eugene V. Debs house,” Lambert told the Tribune-Star, smiling at the connection made to the turn-of-the-century labor advocate. “We used to go have breakfast on Saturday mornings with the operators of a local printing firm,” Lambert continued, “but one morning when we showed up at the business to meet our friends the owners, there was a picket line out front due to a labor dispute. Curtis wouldn’t cross the picket line, and I wouldn’t either.”

While Culver was a native of southern Illinois, he settled in Terre Haute near other family members after returning from service in World War II. He was a federal compliance officer for the General Services Administration, tasked with visiting offices and agencies to make sure they were complying with federal civil rights and employment laws.

His hobbies included golf and flying his private plane for many years.

But he also put service in action as a minister and missionary through area church congregations, visiting Costa Rica, Venezuela and Europe.

About 20 years ago, Culver took a missionary trip to the Republic of Latvia in the Baltic region of northern Europe. Culver’s family was the first American missionary group to reach the remote state of Rezekne, which is near the Russian border, said Egils Zaurins, who became a long-time friend of Culver.

Zaurins, his wife and two of his four children happened to be visiting relatives in the United State when they learned of Culver’s death last week. Zaurins said his family drove from Charlotte, N.C., to be at Monday’s visitation and funeral service at Calvary Temple on Maple Avenue.

Speaking about the positive impact that Culver had on the Latvian people that he met, Zaurins said the missionary family first arrived in the country’s capital of Riga, but then Culver asked to be sent where no other missionaries had gone.

“When they came to us they were the first Americans, and it was very interesting for people to see,” said Zaurins, who is a pastor in Rezekne. The rule of the Russian Communists had recently ended, he explained, but people were still nervous that the Communists would return and make trouble for those who befriended the Americans or who became Christians.

“They had boldness,” Zaurins said of Culver and family. That boldness was a striking contrast for the Latvians, who can be hesitant about reaching out to new people, he said.

“Only God knows how it helps when such people come,” Zaurins said.

The missionary family visited schools there, presenting Christian programs and singing in English to the children. But the Culvers also learned that in Latvia, food was not always easy to obtain, transportation was difficult and luggage was easy to lose.

Zaurins said he remembers that Culver visited Latvia five or six times, but as he got older, he wasn’t able to make the long trip to northern Europe. Himself a Latvian pastor, Zaurins said he was impressed by the stamina of Culver, who was doing missionary work at an advanced age that most Latvian people did not reach.

Pastor Kyle Andrews of Calvary Temple pointed out that Culver did much of his missionary work at an age when most people were retiring. When he was unable to make the international trips, Culver was still active in ministry in the Wabash Valley. Andrews said Culver helped start a church in Clinton, traveling there as assistant pastor and helping the congregation get established.

Though Culver had been a member at Calvary Temple only for the past 10 years, Andrews said, the man was very active in the church and he didn’t let much stop him.

Andrews recalled that more than a year ago, Culver got kicked in the face by a horse. That kind of injury would have crippled most older people, but Culver was back at church about two weeks later, the pastor said.

“He just seemed so invincible,” Andrews said.

Andrews recalled Culver has a humble man who did a lot but never “tooted his own horn” about it.

“He would help out with anything that needed to be done,” Andrews said. “He did a lot in his lifetime. Where most people talked about doing something, if he saw an injustice, he would do something about it and take care of it.”

Curtis B. Culver was laid to rest at Roselawn Memorial Park on Monday.

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