Levi Curtis was born on February 22, 1858, at Blackhead, Conception Bay, and educated at the Methodist College, St. John’s. He later attended Mount Allison University, graduating as the Valedictorian of his class.
Although invited to join the faculty at Mount Allison after his graduation, he chose rather to serve in the Methodist pastoriate. He continued his church ministry; serving in Spaniard’s Bay, Grand Bank, Twillingate and St. John’s; until 1889 when, at the request of the Methodist Conference (now the United Church Conference) he agreed to become Superintendant of Education (Methodist). At first reluctant to accept the new position, Dr. Curtis agreed only when reminded that in the course of inspecting schools he would travel throughout the entire island and often have the opportunity to serve the church by preaching.
Throughout his years of travelling in Newfoundland Dr. Curtis became a forcible advocate for compulsory education. Writing in the Newfoundland Quarterly of 1902 he quotes Gascoigne, “A boy is better unborn than untaught”. He felt that many Newfoundland children, even those living within easy reach of schools, were not attending. However it was not until 1943, a year after Dr. Curtis’s death, that the Newfoundland government passed the School Attendance Act.
Dr. Curtis was one of the people most responsible for the establishment of the “Normal School”. Organized with the well known educator, Dr. S.P. Whiteway as principle, the school was to train many of Newfoundlands future teachers.
After the First World War, assisted by Drs. Blackall and Burke – all three men had been awarded the M.B.E. for their service in “The Patroitic Association” - Dr. Curtis tried unsuccessfully to make Newfoundland’s War Memorial a ‘University’. The interest that had been engendered by their efforts was not lost however, for the Government (headed by Sir Richard Squires and assisted by his Minister of Education Dr. Arthur Barnes) did undertake to establish Memorial College. Drs. Curtis, Burke and Blackall, often worked together and referred to themselves humorously as “the three musketeers”. It was together that they later approached the Carnaegie Foundation of New York seeking assistance for the new college. The fact that representatives of the three denominations involved were working together so impressed the Foundation that the grant was approved.
Faced with the problem of finding a first president for the new Memorial College, Dr. Curtis immediately thought of John Lewis Paton. While visiting the Wembley Exhibition (1924) Dr. Curtis interrupted his holiday to see Sir Michael Sadleir a mutual friend, who agreed to approach Mr. Paton with the idea. The interview apparently was successful for Mr. Paton did indeed become the first President of Memorial.
As a School Superintendant, President and Vise-President of the Council of Higher Education, and Newfoundland’s representative on College boards and a number of church courts in Canada, Dr. Levi Curtis was for forty years the dominating figure in Methodist education in Newfoundland. As one laymen said of him, “whenever we wanted anything done right we asked him and he did it – he did so much for us all that when he died we felt like children who had lost a father”.
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