(Publisher’s note: John McNellis gave the following eulogy on August 9th at St. Dominic’s Catholic Church in San Francisco at a mass commemorating the remarkable life of Jim Curtis)
I first met Jim Curtis forty years ago—in 1979—when we were both starting out. He was the real estate guy, and I was his lawyer. From the first, I knew Curtis was the smartest guy in the room and, truth be told, I knew nothing about real estate law. But rather than tell me he was the smartest, Curtis showed me he was the kindest, explaining his deals with patience, giving me a chance to catch on.
Curtis was so generous with his praise of his friends and his family, it was sometimes embarrassing. If you were his friend, he would introduce you to others as the greatest banker in the world, the best broker on the west coast or the most talented architect ever. Your deals were the best. And he believed it. With his great generosity of spirit, Curtis really thought you were the best.
But who was truly best? Curtis. Together with Jeff Kott, he built the Bristol Group, one of the preeminent real estate investment firms in the country. His love for real estate went far beyond his own company. His great passion was the Urban Land Institute, the ULI. Curtis believed that America itself has been enriched through the ULI, that cities all across the country have been revitalized thanks to the struggle, sweat and determination of committed ULI members. He knew ULI’s sharing of best practices had its members building better projects, more thoughtful developments, more environmentally-sensitive buildings. Because of his great love for it, Curtis volunteered countless hours to ULI, serving in every possible capacity year after year for nearly four decades, doing everything asked of him. Curtis even took two years away from his company—yes, two whole years—to serve as the full-time volunteer chair of the ULI Foundation. His dedicated service to the Foundation came at no small personal expense to Curtis and the Bristol Group.
While he loved the ULI, Curtis saw it clearly. Once when describing how to run a council meeting, he insisted the most important part was giving everyone a chance to talk. He said, “ULI members have just two modes of communication: talking and waiting to talk.”
And that was Curtis. He called it the way he saw it. He didn’t mince words or sugar-coat his opinions. One time, in the early 1980’s, Curtis addressed an ICSC conference, a room full of shopping center developers. He wasn’t quite 30—he looked 15—and he told these titans of industry twice his age that they were full of a substance one doesn’t mention in church, that they were over-building the market, and that they were going to take a big fall. They were outraged, but he was right.
Yes, Curtis freely gave away his opinions, but he also freely gave away his time, his money and his love. He gave away his time to anyone seeking advice or needing his help, he gave away millions to the most deserving of charities and he gave away his love to his friends, his family, his mother Clare, his father Jim, his sisters and brothers—Mary, Kelly, Anne, Rob and Tom—and most of all, to his beloved wife, Melodie.
In short, Curtis was a great success as a friend, as a son, as a sibling, as a partner, as a husband and in everything else he did. And that is why we’re here today, why we’re celebrating the life of our great friend, Jim Curtis.
In Matthew 19:24, Jesus says, “And again, I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
How do you thread that camel through a needle? How do you fill a great church with mourners who truly grieve your passing and who will never forget you? You do it through kindness, generosity and compassion.
How do you thread that camel? You live your life like Jim Curtis.
Thank you one and all for coming today to both mourn Curtis’s passing and celebrate his wonderful life.
John E. McNellis is a Principal at McNellis Partners in Palo Alto, Calif.
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To read more from McNellis, please consider his book Making It in Real Estate: Starting Out as a Developer.