The Rev. Rick Curry never saw what some called his “birth defect” as anything but a blessing.
Curry was born without most of his right arm, but the founder of the Dog Tag Bakery and Fellowship program in Washington, D.C., says being one-handed forced him to adapt. Eventually, that necessity became a skill, a gift. “I didn’t go to a one-handed school that taught me how to live in the two-fisted world,” he told SJU Magazine in 2009, a publication of his alma mater, St. Joseph’s University. “It wasn’t always easy, but this disability is a gift from God.”
When Curry was six years old, his parents enrolled him in acting classes. They thought the classes would give him confidence. However, Curry fell in love with acting and the theatre, ultimately earning a bachelor’s degree in English, a master’s in theater from Villanova University and a doctorate in educational theater from New York University.
The Vietnam War had ended a few years earlier, so in 1977 he founded the National Theater Workshop of the Handicapped in New York City and Belfast, ME. From there he helped found the Wounded Warriors Writers Workshop in 2003 and the Academy for Veterans, which helps soldiers disabled in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan to rebuild their lives. Both are based at Georgetown University in Washington.
And that’s where Dog Tag Bakery and Fellowship enter this story. Because of Curry’s work with veterans, he learned that having a job and a sense of community are vital to the healing process. So, with Connie Milstein — a well-known Washington attorney, real estate developer, and philanthropist — he founded Dog Tag Bakery. The bakery, in the tony Georgetown area of Washington, provides breakfast, lunch, and baked goods to the area, and income and work experience to the veterans and military spouses who work there.
In conjunction with Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies, Curry and Milstein also founded a fellowship program to train vets for a productive post-military work life.
Dog Tag Inc. (DTI) also provides business and entrepreneurial fellowship programs. The five-month programs, according to the DTI website, “enables Fellows to dip their toe back into education, gain first-hand experience in a living, breathing small business, explore a wide-variety of civilian career paths, and acquire key soft skills through Learning Labs.” Fellows take classes in corporate finance, marketing, principles of management and business statistics. Seven fellows graduated with the first class in 2014. Twice each year, eight to ten post-9/11 veterans with service-related disabilities go through the fellowship program. According to DTI, about 60 percent of the program’s graduates are employed and self-sufficient, with most of the rest pursuing other forms of higher education.
Though some of the graduates pursue careers in the food service industry, most do not. Army Sergeant Major Sedrick Banks survived a 2010 mortar attack in Iraq and was a member of the Dog Tag’s inaugural 2014 program. Today, he runs a training and consulting business that was honored by White House Correspondents Association in 2017. Banks said the program helped him “recognize my capabilities, not my injuries.”
Meghan Ogilvie, the program’s CEO, told The Washington Post, “Our success will depend on how successful our students are upon leaving. Our vets deserve not only a quality education, but a quality job.”
The success of Dog Tag Bakery and the Dog Tag Fellowship program would have delighted Rick Curry. However, he is no longer around to see all the fruits that his own disability has created in the lives of others. Curry died in 2015, at age 72 of heart failure, not long after the first class of Dog Tag Fellows graduated.
Just a few years earlier, in 2009, he had completed seminary training and was ordained a Catholic priest. It took a special dispensation from the Vatican for Curry to become a priest, because according to canon law, it takes two hands to serve communion. But in Curry’s case, the Vatican made an exception.
His New York Times obituary made reference to the difficulties having only one hand has caused him in life, but also how God has used that disability for his glory. “At 6,” he recalled, “because of my arm, I was told I could not be a soldier. I could not be a priest. I could not be a doctor. Well, I have a doctorate, I’m a priest and I’m working with the military. I think that’s proof that it’s not smart to circumscribe God.”