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Spinning the Oldies

BU People: Archivist Ford Curran preserves the past at work and play

Ford Curran on his vintage Vespa at a scooter rally near Niagara Falls.

“I’m a lover of antiquities,” says Ford Curran, staff coordinator at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. By day, Curran assists researchers and helps run events sponsored by the Gotlieb, like a December 5th lecture by author James Carroll and a January 16th presentation on African-American History Makers in Massachusetts.

“We preserve historic and contemporary collections of notable figures and make them accessible to the public,” says Curran. The Gotlieb Center contains the personal papers of Martin Luther King Jr., Isaac Asimov, Fred Astaire, Senator Edward W. Brooke III, Bette Davis, David Halberstam, Dan Rather, and other heavyweights of the twentieth century, as well as those of earlier centuries, including U.S. presidents and signers of the Declaration of Independence.

By night, Curran is a disk jockey and event promoter who brings his love of classic Motown and early ska and reggae to the dance floor of clubs such as Great Scott’s, the Milky Way, and the Middle East. “I spin Jamaican oldies and ’60s soul music, mostly,” he says, citing the Kingstonians, Desmond Dekker, Jackie Wilson, and Otis Redding as being among his favorite artists.

Curran’s old-school aesthetic is reflected not only in his work and his side gig, but also in the understated early-1960s tendency of his wardrobe and in the furnishings of the Kenmore Square apartment where he lives with his wife, Kamiko, and their daughter, Concord. “I don’t own a microwave,” he says. “Or have cable TV.” But he does have an antique telephone, old tin ads for Ford Motors, and maps that show a “huge interest in Boston history.”

Even his wheels reflect another era — he owns a 1964 Chevrolet Impala SS with a 327 Turbo Fire engine, but he’s partial to his 1964 Vespa. “Riding any motorized, two-wheeled vehicle is the closest experience to flying that’s out there. When it’s an antique vehicle, that adds in aspects of time travel as well.”

Every summer, Curran organizes an antique motor rally that draws motor enthusiasts from around the world. The 2005 rally featured a ride around Boston’s Emerald Necklace, a string of parks designed in the nineteenth century by landscape-architecture pioneer Frederick Law Olmsted. “That ride gives people from out of town a real Bostonian experience incorporating leisure travel.”

As if all that wasn’t enough to occupy him, Curran, who received his bachelor’s in studio art and American history from Boston College, also paints portraits. His works have been published in literary magazines, used commercially by universities, and exhibited at the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge; he’s even painted a portrait of his late boss, Howard Gotlieb, the founder of BU’s archival center.

Patrick Kennedy can be reached at plk@bu.edu.