Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

November 20, 2013

George Wolfford: Late pastor's Bird Man tale has Hollywood, historic drama: 11/21/13

George Wolfford
For The Independent

ASHLAND — A week ago Wednesday, funeral services were conducted for the Rev. Curtis McComis, 93, a colorful and respected Southern Baptist minister. Curtis was also an administrator in the U.S. prison system, retiring in 1970. His obituary was rife with dates that defined the chapters of his life.

My family had opportunity to know him and to share in the stories of his life. I even stood with him as he preached the funeral for my brother-in-law, David Jackson. His proteges at the Ashland federal prison thought a lot of him, too, as did employees and inmates at other prisons.

But there was one man, a killer serving life, who had few kind words for anyone. His name was Robert Stroud, better known as The Bird Man of Alcatraz. Stroud was featured in a movie by that name, starring famed Burt Lancaster in the title role.

Stroud, supported by soft souls including President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, was moved from Alcatraz to Springfield, Mo., when Curtis was promoted up the ladder to acting associate warden at the medical facility. Curtis was at his desk when Lancaster came to the prison carrying petitions seeking special treatment for Stroud. While denying the requests, he did let Lancaster pay a personal visit to Stroud.

It was only minutes before the actor, flushed of face and nearly unable to speak, returned to the warden’s office, tearing the petitions to shreds and throwing them in a wastebasket. Stroud had treated him to the typical ill temper, sending him away.

Stroud died at 75 on Nov. 21, 1963, and Curtis — who had responsibility for press relations, readied his desk the next morning to respond to reporters. He got no calls all day and for awhile didn’t realize a more famous death had taken the public attention. Stroud, who reached out for publicity, had died on the day before President John F. Kennedy, and no one was interested in him.

GEORGE WOLFFORD is a former news reporter and regional editor for The Independent.