In Memoriam: Terry Curtin, Visionary NC State Veterinary Medicine Founding Dean, 1926-2020

NC State College of Veterinary Medicine founding dean Terrence Curtin, whose unwavering, sterling vision laid a strong foundation for the world-leading institution the college would become, died Tuesday at his home in Fuquay-Varina.

He was 94.

The CVM community extends its deepest sympathies to Dean Curtin’s wife, Sharon; his sister, Kay Curtin Ficklin (Eureka, Calif.); his children: Melissa (Maryland), Joe (Oregon), Laurie and husband Steve (Connecticut) and Jim and wife Leslie (South Carolina); stepdaughter Merle, who lived with and helped care for Curtin; his grandchildren: Shannon and husband Chris (Virginia), Dr. Ryan Curtin and wife Emily (Atlanta, Ga.) and Dr. Chet Polson (Washington, D.C.); step-granddaughter Erika Harms, who grew up on Terry’s lap; and step-grandson Blake Harms.  

Curtin, who often went by Terry, served as dean from 1981, when the college first opened its doors, through February 1992. When the CVM was officially created in 1978, it was the culmination of a tireless effort years in the making  — and Curtin was at the center of it all. 

“You cannot overestimate the incredible positive influence that Dr. Terry Curtin had on this college,” says CVM Dean Paul Lunn. “He made many of the fundamental decisions that laid the foundations for the incredible success that we have enjoyed.

“A series of remarkable innovations set us on a path for success and created a truly interdisciplinary institution. We will never be able to thank him enough. It was an incredible honor to know him.”

Curtin’s commitment to extraordinary quality and exceptional leadership that, to this day, remains a core value of the college, now consistently ranked as a top veterinary school in the country.

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Curtin (far right) with a group displaying an architects rendering of the CVM campus at its groundbreaking ceremony. University Archives Photograph Collection.

“We are deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Terry Curtin,” says NC State University Chancellor Randy Woodson. “His leadership and vision were integral to the College of Veterinary Medicine’s inception and have guided the college’s work for decades.

“I know that his legacy will continue to shape the educational experiences and compassionate care that the CVM is recognized for.”

Curtin was a practical visionary. He pushed for full state funding for the CVM from the very beginning, rather than a phased approach that left other veterinary colleges underfunded from their inception. He was instrumental in attracting extraordinary talent to fill faculty and administrative roles in the new college. 

“North Carolina deserves to have a center of excellence,” Curtin said as the CVM was under construction.

He supported a design for the first CVM building that prevented departments from feeling isolated from one another, lending to a sense of excitement and spirit of unity as the college got on its feet. 

Oscar Fletcher, who succeeded Curtin as CVM dean and led the college until 2004, says Curtin’s skillful work shepherding the college in its earliest days led to it quickly becoming a leader in veterinary higher education. 

Curtin was a skillful diplomat, says Fletcher, able to keep the many varying interests and personalities involved with the college at its inception focused on the same goal.

“He did a really good job of getting all the necessary resources together — funding, faculty and facilities,” says Fletcher. “He deserves a lot of credit for the work he did in that initial role.”

Born June 9, 1926, Curtin grew up on a farm in South Dakota, exposing him to the challenges of raising farm animals and the critical role of veterinary medicine in agriculture. He joined the United States Army during World War II and served a tour of duty in Europe.

Following the war, he received a bachelor’s degree and a DVM from the University of Minnesota. He returned to South Dakota in 1954 and opened a veterinary practice, but the lure of academia was strong. He earned a master’s degree and then a Ph.D. from Purdue University in 1964 and then joined the Purdue faculty.

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Curtin speaks during the CVM’s dedication ceremony, 1983. University Archives Photograph Collection.

He was a professor and chairman of veterinary physiology and pharmacology at the University of Missouri in 1973 when he was recruited by NC State University to launch the nascent veterinary science department in the then-named School of Agriculture and Life Sciences (SALS), the forerunner of the veterinary school. When he began his tenure, the department included four other faculty members and an administrative assistant.

By the time of his arrival, sentiment had steadily grown in favor of developing a separate college of veterinary medicine in North Carolina, but the path was challenging. It went through some growing pains as a department within SALS, which later became the NC State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).

In his 2010 book, The College of Veterinary Medicine, North Carolina State University: A Personal Perspective of its Founding, Curtin described the diverse opinions about the veterinary school, noting that tact, patience and persistence were key at the time. 

With minimal resources, Curtin put together funding, mapped out facilities and developed curriculum. He was named the CVM’s first dean on Feb. 1, 1979. 

Six days later, the CVM’s groundbreaking ceremony was held next to the dairy pavilion, now part of the college’s Teaching Animal Unit. The road leading to the TAU behind the college is now named for Curtin. 

The first class of 40 students enrolled in 1981, and the college was formally dedicated in April 1983. Curtin often recalled the satisfaction he felt on May 10, 1985, when he sat in his office and opened a letter informing him that the college achieved full accreditation.

Curtin didn’t have time to rest — and didn’t want to. Through the length of his tenure, he continued to expand the student body, enlist and support faculty and oversee the evolution of the college’s programs and activities. 

He was active even in retirement, providing invaluable input on the CVM’s path and offering counsel to subsequent CVM leaders. After stepping down as dean, he remained at the CVM as professor emeritus in the Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences and continued to represent the college and advocate for its mission and future. His portrait now hangs in a prominent location within the CVM’s main administration building.

“When I came from the University of Illinois to be dean of the college in 2004, Terry was an invaluable resource to me,” says Warwick Arden, the CVM’s third dean and now NC State University’s executive vice chancellor and provost. “He was instrumental in helping me make connections to the veterinary community and the college’s supporters across North Carolina. He will be sorely missed, but his legacy lives on through the college and its outstanding graduates.”

Among many honors, Curtin was named Veterinarian of the Year in 1983 by the North Carolina Veterinary Medical Association (NCVMA), served as president of the American Association of Veterinary Colleges in 1989 and was given the Distinguished Veterinarian of the Year Award by the NCVMA in 1990, the organization’s highest honor.  

During that award ceremony, former NCVMA leader Joe Kinnarney said, “Terry Curtin is one of the veterinarians in North Carolina who has made a difference in veterinary medicine, and that difference will be felt for decades to come.”

It always will. 

A memorial service will be held from 2-3 p.m. Dec. 22 at Montlawn Memorial Park, 2911 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh. For more information, go here

For those wishing to honor Curtin, his family recommends donations in his memory be made to the Terrence M. Curtin Endowed Scholarship at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine. To give, go to give.ncsu.edu/vetmed and type in the name of the scholarship or the account number, #681929.

~Jordan Bartel and Steve Volstad/NC State Veterinary Medicine