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Brad Currey (1930-2022): an Atlanta leader like no other

Brad Currey stands in between Bill Bolling and Sharon Gay at a reception at the Commerce Club about three years ago. (Photo by Kelly Jordan.)

By Maria Saporta

Back in 2019, I received an email from Brad Currey about economic inequality — passionately calling for early education and quality childcare to lead people out of poverty.

That was Brad Currey — a leader who was willing to address Atlanta’s biggest challenges — from the environment to race relations to business excellence – over more than six decades.

Currey first got on my radar in 1991 when Susan Neugent, then a senior vice president at the Metro Atlanta Chamber, offered to give me background info on Atlanta’s business leaders. Since I had just become a business columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she wanted to keep me honest and make sure I didn’t get co-opted by corporate spin. Neugent let me know which leaders were the good guys (yes, they were almost all men) and which ones were not.

Then she said there was one great man who was in a class all by himself — Brad Currey.

Brad Currey, Russell Currey, Stacy Funderburke

Honoree Brad Currey (center) is joined by his son, Russell Currey (right), and Stacy Funderburke, of the Conservation Fund, at the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s E3 Awards ceremony. (Photo by Kelly Jordan.)

“What a leader! What a good soul!  What a friend to so many! How much good can one person do?” Neugent wrote me in an email when she heard Currey had died. “The good he did would be an extraordinary measure for anyone.”

Accolades poured in as the word got out among Currey’s admirers.

“We have lost and Heaven has gained one of the very finest men that our world contained,” wrote Tom Johnson, retired president of CNN. “It isn’t the age at which Brad died. It is how he lived those years the Good Lord gave him. Always Kind. Thoughtful. Generous. Humble. Selfless. Determined to help others. He was my Atlanta mentor for 31 years. He exemplified integrity, doing what is right, service to his community. I will do my best in my 8th and 9th inning to make Brad proud of me. I loved him.”

The first time I went to interview Brad Currey, he was CEO of RockTenn (now WestRock). As we sat in his office with a large picture window facing railroad tracks, we could hear a train coming. Currey interrupted the interview to swivel around to watch the train go by — counting the number of engines carrying railroad cars.

“That’s how I know how the economy is doing,” he told me. If there were four engines, the economy was booming. If there was one, we were in a recession. That day, Currey was happy to see three engines letting him know the economy was in good shape.

Jim Rubright, CEO of RockTenn, with Brad Currey at the Rotary Club of Atlanta in 2013. (Special: Atlanta Rotary.)

Over the years, I counted on his wisdom, guidance and support — knowing there were many of us who relied on him as we tried to navigate issues in Atlanta and Georgia.

Currey was instrumental in the renovation of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, where Bill Bolling founded the Atlanta Community Food Bank – leading to a friendship that lasted decades.

Brad’s death saddens me greatly,” former Emory University President Jim Laney, who served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea, wrote in an email. Laney said they bonded when Currey agreed 40 years ago to join the Emory board of trustees. “I was especially touched and grateful for the most generous scholarship program he funded in the College in my name, for Korean students. Our annual lunches with those students are forever etched in my memory.”

Brad Currey, building cornerstone sponsor, in honor of his wife Sally Currey, with Dana Lupton, CEO of Moving in the Spirit in July 2019. (Photo: Francisco Dean of ProSnap.)

When Bill Bolling and I first had the idea more than five years ago to establish the Atlanta Civic Circle, a nonprofit civic journalism site, Currey was the first to make a donation — even before we had our nonprofit tax status. Currey continued to be our most consistent donor, giving us significant grants every year, including one we received in December.

The last time I saw Brad Currey was when my colleague, Britton Edwards, and I went to Canterbury Court to visit with another great leader — Howell Adams. I told Britton we should go to see Brad since we were there. When we visited his apartment, we were told he was in the exercise room. There we found Brad pedaling hard on an exercise bike — delighted to see us and as endearing as always.

Laney spoke for all of us in his email to Currey’s family.

“I shall miss him more than I can say,” Laney wrote. “He was dear friend, counselor, and partner. His integrity, strength of character and profound sense of service gave him enormous influence in our region through the institutions he loved. He was in every sense one of a kind, a gentleman of honor and Christian discipleship.”

The services for Brad Currey will be held on Saturday, Feb. 19 at 11 a.m. at his beloved St. Luke’s.

Here is the email about economic inequality that Brad Currey sent to me on July 10, 2019, through his longtime executive assistant Catherine Grist:

Maria,

Please think about writing a column about economic inequality being the product of a failure of education and child care. We absolutely know that every child can learn. Parents and the community must start early. When a child is born, both parents need to cradle them in their arms, start reading to them even before they learn to speak, provide books, pictures, good music, newspapers and turn off the television. If the parents cannot, then the community needs to find a way. They need to start formal education as soon as possible and continue it vigorously as long as possible. As the second of seven children, six of whom grew up, I know this because I watched my mother read to each of us almost from birth. My father didn’t finish high school, went to work as a “runner” in a bank at age 14 in 1901, and except for two years in the U.S. Army in World War I, worked in banks in Nashville, Tennessee, New York City and Chattanooga until retiring at age 67. He took us all walking from about age 4 on the CCC trails around Chattanooga and taught us about all the different varieties of trees, plants and animals in the world. All six of us became college graduates! The girls were both Phi Beta Kappa, smarter than all four of their brothers. My mother had no formal education but was taught at home by her father, a lawyer, and her mother born in 1867 and then given to and raised by an old maid aunt schoolteacher. (My mother’s three older sisters went to school, but my mother and her young sister were taught at home because the sixth child was a boy and they started saving money to send him to school eventually getting him into West Point!)

Child care is just as important as education. Both save big money in the long run and should be considered public responsibilities.

Obviously, I feel strongly about all this.

Brad Currey

Here is the family’s obituary, which was largely written by Brad Currey himself:

Longtime Atlanta resident, civic leader, volunteer and businessman Bradley Norton Currey, Jr., died January 6, 2022, at home in Atlanta, Georgia. He was 91.

Brad Currey (second from left) on April 8, 1974 at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium honoring Hank Aaron’s 715th home run. (Special: Currey family.)

Throughout his life, Brad loved civic and business work but also activities outside of work, such as playing with children and grandchildren, swimming, hiking, gardening and listening to music. He used to say he was the “luckiest guy that ever lived.” Since the early 1980s, he has spent time with family in the north Georgia mountains, where he walked the woods; read Jack Tales and Pogo to beloved grandchildren, nieces and nephews; built roaring fires in the winter, and in summertime took very long swims. He loved people, eschewed extravagance, cared about the community and was generous with his time and resources.

Brad graduated from Princeton University in 1951 with an A.B. degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He then enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving as an infantry soldier (RA 14401949) and armor officer (01937889) during the Korean War. He saw no combat, his service spent going to and teaching in Army Schools. He declared infantry basic training and infantry leaders’ courses in the recently-integrated Army the “best possible antidote to four years at Princeton University.”

Brad Currey at the wedding rehearsal dinner for his granddaughter – Hannah Wilson. (Special: Currey family.)

He loved his work from boyhood on. His first management job was head busboy in the dining halls at Princeton University. He joined Trust Company of Georgia in late 1953 as a trainee, rising from teller to credit analyst, securities analyst, commercial lender, bond portfolio manager, head of Atlanta commercial banking, head of marketing, controller, strategic planner, chief financial officer and member of the board of directors of the bank and bank holding company – in short, a wonderful and productive banking career. In 1976, he joined Rock-Tenn Company, of which he had been an outside director for nine years. He and A. Worley Brown led the company until Brown became disabled in the late 1980s, after which Brad served as CEO until retiring in 2000. The company grew from $12 million in sales in 1967 to $1.3 billion in 2000. He and Worley Brown built the Rock-Tenn Team and, by his report, “had more fun than the law allowed.” Throughout his remarkable career, he led by example, listened, mentored and cultivated talent. The list of people who are grateful that Brad Currey coached, encouraged, motivated, cajoled and inspired them to give their best may be as long as the Atlanta phone book in 1953, the year he arrived in Atlanta.

Brad Currey driving his restored 1931 Packard with his brother, Fred Currey, in the passenger seat. (Special: Currey family.)

From the mid-1950s through 2000, Brad was an active and influential volunteer. He helped lead Community Chest and United Way campaigns, headed the Graduate School of Banking of the South at Louisiana State University from 1971-74; and chaired the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce in 1974, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra board in 1976-78, and the Woodruff Arts Center board in 1983-85. From 1983-88 he served the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta as deputy chairman, then chairman of the board. He was an outside director of Genuine Parts Company and Brown & Brown, Inc., Standard-Coosa-Thatcher Company, Dempster Brothers, Inc., and Enzymatic Deinking Technologies, LLC. He also served on the boards of the American Paper Institute, the American Forest and Paper Association and the Paperboard Packaging Council, and was a founder of the Paper Recycling Coalition. In education, he was a trustee of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, The Lovett School, and Emory University, where he served as chair from 1994-2000.

Brad Currey hiking along a creek in Georgia. (Photo by Clay Johnston.)

Immediately following “retirement,” he went to work on water policy in Georgia and the so-called water war between Georgia, Florida and Alabama that started in 1990. Three governors appointed him to committees and councils charged with problem-solving related to water supply and conservation. He was particularly proud of contributing to the accomplishments of the ACF (Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint) Stakeholders, a board of fifty-six people from three states. He recruited key board members, helped raise the money for engineering studies and computer modeling and worked to keep the economic development interests and environmental interests all in the same tent. After five years of hard work, all fifty-six people on that board agreed that they “could live with” a Sustainable Water Management Plan for the ACF basin. The plan did not stop the litigation which reached the U.S. Supreme Court, but it did show that stakeholders who depend on the river basin from all three states and all four sub-basins could agree on a practical solution to the twenty-six-year-old water war.

As much as he valued his work, Brad was most proud of his big family: his brothers and sisters, his wife and children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren. Beyond work and family, the things that mattered the most to him were the following: First, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church’s acquisition of the full two blocks of land on which the church is located. Second, working with L. L. Gellerstedt, Jr., Ivan Allen, III, George Goodwin and others to roll out the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce slogan “Atlanta, the World’s Next Great City” in the early 1970s. This same group traveled the world securing foreign consulates and persuading international airlines to initiate service to Atlanta. Third, his work with Mrs. Betty Sands Fuller to keep Robert Shaw as the genius leading the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus when he was at risk of being fired. Fourth, establishing the Paper Recycling Coalition as the voice for paper recycling in the USA. And lastly, the Sustainable Water Management Plan completed in 2015 by the ACF Stakeholders that proved that intractable differences can be resolved by stakeholders using facts, science, engineering and the willingness of the participants to recognize that, as Brad would say, “nobody gets everything they want!”

Brad Currey with his wife, Sally, on a motorcycle. (Special: Currey family.)

Born June 21, 1930, in Chattanooga, Tenn., he was the second child of Bradley Norton Currey and Louise Sevier Giddings Currey. He is predeceased by his wife Sally McClellan Currey, and survived by their four children Bradley N. Currey III (Julie Farrar), of University City, Missouri, Anne C. Bucey (David R. Bucey) of Atlanta, L. Louise Currey Wilson (Clifford C. Wilson Jr.) of Princeton, N.J. and Russell M. Currey (Amy Durrell) of Atlanta; ten grandchildren, Nicholas O. Currey, Tonya M. Currey, Sarah M. Bucey, Rachel A. Bucey, Richard C. Bucey, Hannah L. Wilson Rebrovick, Bradley M. Goren-Wilson, Anna B. Currey, Alexander M. Currey and William D. Currey; three brothers, Frederick G. Currey of Dallas, Texas, Hal Sevier Currey of Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina and Robert B. Currey of Atlanta and Sparta, Georgia; and many nieces, nephews and cousins. His sisters were Louise Currey Nicholls (1928-1990), Rose Giddings Currey (1934-1935) and Elizabeth Currey Foster (1943-1984).

He and his wife Sally joined St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in 1956, where they sang in the choir. He served several terms on the vestry and as senior warden and was finance chair from 1968-1988. Services will be held at the church on Saturday, February 19, 2022, at 11 a.m. In lieu of flowers or other memorials, gifts to St. Luke’s Endowment Fund, The United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta, The Nature Conservancy, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, The James T. Laney Scholars Fund at Emory University, or whatever charitable enterprise he roped you into, would have been appreciated by Mr. Currey.

Brad Currey with Sarah Bucey, his first grandchild, in the late 1980s. (Special: Currey family).

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Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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