“He was a voice for the voiceless whether it was for the homeless or victims of war, poverty or persecution,” said Helen Grove, who was married to Curt for 42 years, until he passed away on January 7th, 2000 at the age of 68 from a heart attack. But as you will see from this remarkable story, Curt made an incredible difference for others in the brief time he was with us. And today 80 year old Helen carries on this work.
The world is filled with people calling themselves Christians, yet who do little to help the poor, to stop the wars and to forgive and uplift humanity as Jesus advocated in the Sermon on the Mount.
But Curt and his wife Helen took that Sermon literally. For years, they welcomed the homeless into their San Pedro, CA home giving them shelter, showers, food and comfort four nights a week, often six homeless people at a time. The Groves did this despite the warnings from some of their religious friends who feared for their safety, fears that proved to be unfounded.
They also began feeding the homeless in a local park and started the San Pedro Catholic Worker in 1993, a lay group, joining with other volunteers to set up a twice a week nightly soup kitchen to feed the homeless, a kitchen which continues to feed the homeless today.
Even at 80 Helen still cooks much of the food, which is paid for by her and some of the volunteers and family and friends. On a recent Monday night, she was cooking potato cheese soup, with ham, salad and buttered bread for 45 to 100 homeless people. Yet Helen refused to put the hot cheese on top of the soup until the first homeless people arrived because “it’s prettier that way,” she said, adding “a friend told me you eat with your eyes,” and she wanted the homeless to feel their meal was special and that they are too.
This is but a sampling of Curt’s and Helen’s work. Curt not only took care of the homeless, he opposed the U.S.’s many wars and nuclear arms production and became a peace activist, non-violently protesting. He was arrested over 30 times for his efforts as the government doesn’t always tolerate opposition well, as the Occupy Movement is learning today. In 1990, to oppose the pending U.S. invasion of Iraq, Curt, Jeff Dietrich, who runs the Los Angeles Catholic Worker on Skid Row, and several others peacefully protested outside the Los Angeles Federal Building. At that protest Curt, who for 30 years had been an aerospace engineer held a sign that read, “I repent of my participation in war making.”
But uncharacteristic of Curt, they poured 10 gallons of oil on the steps and two pints of blood on some of the pillars and were not only arrested but in Curt and Jeff’s case, served two months in jail. Other people served as much as four months in jail. This is a very harsh sentence especially considering that when Hollywood celebrities drunk drive or go on drunken or drugged rampages, all is quickly forgiven and seldom do they see the sight of a jail for more than an hour or two. And a more typical response from authorities for non-celebrities is an arrest and a day or two in jail.
But Curt was determined to honor Jesus’ guidance and this is not easy nor risk free. Curt came under fire not only for his opposition to weapons and wars but for helping the homeless because local San Pedro merchants and others felt the kindness he and Helen extended to these outcasts only served to attract more of them.
Why did Curt transform his life to follow in Jesus’ footsteps? According to Helen, it was gradual. And it was a matter of conscience. Curt was born in Los Angeles on April 24th, 1931, where he was raised. Later he served four years in the U.S. Air Force and afterward met Helen at a St. Patrick’s Day dance. “I spent the night talking him into going back to school,” she said. After they were married, with her encouragement and support in raising their children, he got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Loyola University in electrical engineering. Curt spent his career as an aerospace engineer and provided well for his family but “quit work eight years early” because he no longer wanted to be a part of the military industrial complex, according to Helen. His conscience and his religious beliefs would no longer allow it.
Among the peace vigils they both participated in, “we used to have a peace vigil every Friday night in Beverly Hills at the corner of Wilshire Blvd. and Santa Monica (Blvd.),” said Helen. They choose that location because thousands of cars drove by and they joined others there. Of Los Angeles County’s 9 1/2 million people, 34,000 of which live in Beverly Hills, how many of those people joined them to oppose war? “About 12 people, but usually about 6” would turn out at any one vigil counting Curt and Helen. The rush hour round trip drive time between San Pedro and Beverly Hills alone was 3 hours but they still participated in this vigil for about 15 years.
“Then we started our own vigil in San Pedro at noon. A lot of the time it was just Curt and me. But sometimes we had as many as six people but rarely. I kept it up for a few months after Curt died” but it was a lonely vigil and Helen brought it to an end.
Curt was also a devoted husband and father. On weekends, he and Helen said goodbye to the homeless people and welcomed home their children and grandchildren or traveled to their homes to visit. Curt loved to joke with everyone and to play backyard basketball, Ping-Pong and other games the family enjoyed and he was an avid camper, hiker, tennis player and an active reader. In addition, he was supportive of Helen going back to school after all these years and she proudly earned a Bachelor’s degree in English from Cal State, Dominguez Hills.
Curt was never rich or famous and he had no friends in high places. But when he died many of Los Angeles’s homeless lost a great friend as had peace activists confronting the wars and the military industrial complex. His family, including his and Helen’s three sons and three daughters mourned him as did many church members and the Los Angeles South Bay community at large.
“He was a wonderful person, dedicated to charitable work based upon his Catholic religion,” said Art Almeida, a fellow parishioner at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, to the Daily Breeze, a local newspaper, in 2000. “He was all heart,” stated Jeff Dietrich recently, the head of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker which feeds homeless people on skid row. Jeff added “I consider him one of the heroic disciples of Jesus. He was a very gentle man, really sweet.”
But most of all Curt was there for people, especially those in need, offering them a helping hand and a generous heart, a tradition Helen carries on today.