Remembering Curt, a story along Alabama's Gulf coast
Alabama’s current death toll from COVID-19 stands at over 7,000. The virus reportedly is changing how people remember those they’ve lost. The funeral industry says cremations are up. And the coronavirus is delaying memorial services for some families whether the cause was COVID-19 or not.
Outside one closed gas station in Fairhope, there’s a white board with hand scrawled messages. When Curtis Rewerts died of natural causes last April, there wasn’t a funeral. But that’s not stopping people whose lives were touched by Rewerts to share their stories.
"He probably struggled financially because of how much he was helping others. I don't even know the extent of all the people he helped," Isabelle Pope said.
"He was an extremely nice person," King Cunningham said. "If the community did well, he did well. He was out there smiling at you, greeting you all of the time."
"He used to have a 'Breakfast with Curt.' Sometimes years ago he had a picnic table up under the gas pumps out there and he'd cook tons and tons of bacon, bacon, egg sandwiches," Norma Weston said, "and then he called it 'Breakfast with Curt.'"
Locals called him Curt. For more than 40 years, Curtis Rewerts owned River Park on the outskirts of Fairhope. It was a combination gas station and convenience store. It also doubled as a transmission and auto repair shop, a deli, coffee shop, and pool supply store. It even acted as a community center for people living around communities of Clay City, Fish River and the swamps close to Polecat Creek. After Rewerts death, messages started appearing on a white board outside his shop. They said things like “Gonna Miss Ya Curtis,” “Thank you for all of the people you helped along the way,” and “Sleep with the angels my friend.”
Customers described Curt as a great man, always helping others. There were stories of parties, bus trips to New Orleans and even pools he cleaned. His store was always filled with the smells of big pots of spaghetti, gumbo, red beans and rice and Mulligan Stew. Today the only sounds are crickets and cars passing by. The price on the gas tank is stuck at $2.75 a gallon and signs along in front of the store still advertise the lunch special, a Thick and Fresh Reuben. Plastic letters remain in the wood box next to the flashing arrow sign. They were used to spell out names on the birthdays and anniversaries of customers.
“I met Curtis around 1985 when we bought a house in the area where his store is,” said Cunningham, a regular at Rewerts' store. “He saved me one time.”
That rescue involved the sign. Cunningham forgot one day that it was his anniversary. Fortunately, Curt remembered and spelled it out on the sign.
“I was going to Florida to work that day. I went to the store to gas up,” Cunningham said. “I saw my name on the board and went right back to the house. Every year Curtis had a Christmas party. He lived in a trailer behind the store. That place would be packed with people. All of a sudden he disappeared and came back out as Santa Claus. He always had thoughtful presents for his guests. He put thought into every present for each person."
Cunningham said Curtis won an award for making free throws in high school and served in the Air Force in Vietnam. Before he moved to Fairhope, he was a door-to-door salesman selling brushes in New Orleans and he was good at it. Other customers remember how Curtis put their purchases on a tab with no charge. They could pay him back a little at a time. One of those was Pope, who was putting herself through college. She put gas or groceries on credit when payday was a week away.
“I paid my own way and I graduated with no debt,” Pope said. “So I worked at five different part-time jobs and Curt knew it. He knew I worked hard. He knew that I was in school. I wouldn't have made it without people like him. There were people making payments to him for repairing a transmission that was thousands of dollars. And they would come strolling in on Friday on payday and give him $100. He probably struggled financially because of how much he was helping others. I don't even know the extent of all the people he helped.”
Pope said Curtis helped animals, too.
“I had a dog that I was trying to feed. That was a homeless dog. They called him runaway out there. I came past the store and they were waving at me one day coming home from school. They said your dog got hurt. What do you mean my dog got hurt? I don't have a dog. Curtis said, ‘Isabelle, I know that you care about this dog and his ear is bleeding pretty bad. I have him in a back room.’ And so I went back there and got him and I said, 'I don't have enough to put gas in my car.' Again, starving students. He said, 'Just pump gas, just pump gas. Take him to the vet, do what you gotta do.' So it wasn't even just people he helped, it was animals. He had a heart,” she said.
Pope said Curtis never knew how much he meant to her. She tries to pass on the othe rs the generosity gave to her.
“You're only as successful as the town that built you and Fairhope is one of those towns that builds them,” she said. “If you want to be built, you can be built. You just have to let people help and you have to be willing to know when to accept help. You have to be willing to give it back.”
Norma Weston worked for Curt for 18 years as a cashier at the gas station. She remembered Halloweens where Curt dressed up as the Tooth Fairy or Mrs. Doubtfire and took pictures with the kids. He gave out turkey for Thanksgiving and calendars at Christmas.
“In the summertime, he would cook chicken or ribs and make humongous pots of potato salad in 98 gallon courts or 98 gallon pot,” Weston said. “He would advertise on the sign out front free barbecue or free ribs on such and such date. Then people always would come and get a plate and go. St. Patrick's day he made Mulligan's stew and gave away cups and cups.”
For many years, River Park was the only store around, then Walmart was built in 2007, less than half a quarter mile away.
“I was working for him when Walmart was built, said Weston. “He did lose some customers, but they ended up coming back. Because of COVID he couldn't have a funeral. I don’t know what happened to him the last years of his life. I feel like he needs a proper funeral, or this. He did a lot for the community.”
But, that doesn’t mean people like Cunningham, Pope, and Weston won’t keep bearing witness to Curt’s life well lead, and their lives were made better along the way.