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Tunnell's Journey

Photo of Curtis Dale Tunnell overlooking the desert

By all measures, Curtis Dale Tunnell led a remarkable life—richly varied, meaningful, accomplished, and blessed with love. He pursued his work and boundless interests with vigor and passion, as is reflected in this photographic study of traditional wax making. His unexpected death at the age of 67 prompted an enormous outpouring of tributes and nostalgic reflections from the many friends and colleagues who knew him and shared in his life's journey. A common thread that runs throughout the tributes is Tunnell's integrity, his passion for life, and his loving concern for others, whether family member, co-worker, friend, or stranger.

In this section, we present excerpts from a selection of those memorials and anecdotes, beginning with the tribute written by Texas Historical Commission colleague Dan Utley.

photo of Curtis Tunnell
THC Executive Director Curtis Tunnell making a presentation at the Alamo. In earlier days, Tunnell conducted excavations at the San Antonio shrine and other Spanish Colonial sites in Texas. Photo courtesy THC. Click to enlarge.

Curtis was literally a man for all seasons and all situations. He had remarkable intellectual capabilities coupled with great sensitivity and an unrelenting love for life. He had the uncanny ability to open new worlds of observation, perception, and understanding for everyone who was fortunate enough to come in contact with him--for people of all walks of life…. Remarkably, he could be equally at home "kicking rocks" in a farmer's field or discussing the political climate at a black-tie function in the Capitol building.
—Robert Mallouf

photo of Mardith Scheutz and Curtis Tunnell
Archeologist Mardith Scheutz with Tunnell during excavations at the Alamo in 1966. Photo courtesy THC.

Curtis and (his wife) Nancy and I have joked about him and me being inheritors and victims of the "Cowboy Ethic." That is the ethic subscribed to by the old gentlemen cowboys of West Texas, and imparted to us by our cowboy ancestors….The Cowboy Ethic asks that you be constantly humble and self-effacing, willing to sacrifice for the welfare of others, to defend the weak from the powerful, right from wrong. It would require you to plunge into a raging river to rescue a swept-away child, a drowning puppy, or maybe even a lady's parasol, and to say when you waded ashore after completing your mission, "Aw shucks, ma'am, 'tweren't nothin'."
—Mark Parsons

photo of Tunnell with cannons
Tunnell with bronze cannons excavated at the Fort St. Louis site by the THC in 1999. As THC Archeology Division director Jim Bruseth noted, Tunnell took on his retirement years with characteristic gusto: "I recently looked back over some photographs of Curtis at Fort St. Louis, and in every one he has a twinkle in his eye." Photo courtesy THC.

He presented his stories like a seasoned thespian, and they often came complete with one-liners, songs, and even choreography. Through his memory I picked cotton on the rolling plains, waited in the dark for the midnight train, washed terrazzo floors in Canyon, dined with LBJ, hugged the neck of Ann Richards, relived the night-into-day flashes of atomic blasts, marveled at the magic of willow furniture and paper flowers, searched for the hidden meaning of Guatemalan textiles, and protested inequality at an Austin lunch counter.
—Dan Utley

Curtis Dale Tunnell

Texas lost a living legend on April 13, 2001. Longtime archeologist, preservationist, oral historian, and folklorist Curtis Tunnell passed away in Austin at the age of 67. A native of Turkey, in Hall County, Tunnell recalled his homeland of the Texas rolling plains as "a beautiful place for a boy to grow up in the years before World War II. My earliest memories," he recalled, "were of looking toward the west and seeing the sculptured purple silhouette of the Caprock. This rugged escarpment of the plains beckoned steadily, from the Quitaque Peaks on the south to Eagle's Point on the north. This vista always made my mind take flight."

The land had a tremendous impact on Tunnell, as did his encounters with various cultures, both ancient and modern. By the time he left home for West Texas State College in Canyon, his interests in geology, paleontology, and anthropology were already developing.

At West Texas, Tunnell worked in the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, one of the leading archeological research centers in the state. There, he met his lifelong mentor, Jack Hughes. Together, they covered vast areas of the Texas Panhandle, conducting archeological investigations on rock shelters, pit burials, bison kill sites, and countless other projects.

While in college, Tunnell participated in military training through Officers Candidate School. Upon graduation he joined the U.S. Navy and saw service in the Pacific, ferrying supplies to such outposts as Johnston Island, the Midway Islands, and the Marshalls. His ship, the USS Kishwaukee, was also involved in early atomic bomb testing at the Bikini and Enewetak atolls.

Following military service, Tunnell returned to Texas and began working with archeologist Ed Jelks on the Texas River Basins Survey project funded by the Smithsonian Institution. Their first investigations took place along the McGee Bend of the Angelina River in East Texas, later impounded as part of Sam Rayburn Reservoir. He also worked in the Lake Amistad area along the Rio Grande. Tunnell followed his fieldwork with graduate studies at The University of Texas at Austin, receiving a master's degree in anthropology.

From there, he became a field researcher for the University of Illinois and worked on such sites as the famed Cahokia Mounds, as well as projects in Kansas and Arizona. He then returned to Austin as Curator of Anthropology for the Texas Memorial Museum. There, he and W. W. Newcomb undertook pioneering work at a site that proved to be the location of Mission San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz, established by the Spanish in 1762 to minister to the Lipan Apache.

In 1965, public demand for historic and archeological preservation led the Texas Legislature to create the position of State Archeologist. For the first time, Texas had a formal public archeology program, and the person selected to fill the new position was Curtis Tunnell. First assigned to the Texas State Building Commission, the State Archeologist was transferred to the Texas State Historical Survey Committee (later the Texas Historical Commission) in 1969.

As State Archeologist, Tunnell participated in scientific investigations at the Alamo and other important Spanish Colonial mission and presidio sites in Texas, directed archeological excavations at the ancient Folsom-age Adair-Steadman site, and braved the waters of the Rio Grande in order to record the archeological resources present in the canyons of the Big Bend region.

He battled commercial salvagers to retain the 1554 Spanish shipwreck artifacts for the State of Texas and was instrumental in the development of the Antiquities Code of Texas, the legal tool to protect historic resources on public (state) land, including submerged shipwrecks. His films and audiotapes documenting the work of numerous folk artisans and craftsmen in the Texas-Mexico border region may well represent the only records of the practitioners of many vanishing crafts and arts.

In 1981, Tunnell became THC executive director, a position he held until his retirement in January 1999. Under his direction, the agency's traditional areas of concentration, including the Official Texas Historical Markers, National Register of Historic Places, Texas courthouse law, and other preservation programs, continued to grow and expand, and new initiatives were developed. Of special note was the initiation of the THC's heritage tourism efforts, which were first widely recognized through the Los Caminos del Rio Heritage Project.

Also during his tenure, the THC's Main Street program, guided by Anice Read, gained national recognition, and, with the support of the Texas Legislature, the Texas Preservation Trust Fund was developed, allowing the THC to provide matching-grant funding for significant preservation efforts. Through his decades of state service, Tunnell traveled to all 254 Texas counties and developed lasting friendships in all regions of the state.

He is remembered particularly as a respected scientist, a friend to local preservationists, a tireless worker for "the people's history," an avid fan of Texas music, a promoter of Texas cultural crafts, an oral historian of Texas archeology, and a man who genuinely loved the myriad people from all walks of life with whom he came in contact. And that love was returned many times over. People in each Texas county, in other states, and in remote areas of Northern Mexico mourn his passing.

{For the complete presentation of tributes to Curtis Tunnell as well as other information on his life, see the THC Curtis Tunnell Memorial.}

Photo of Curtis Tunnell creating a map in the field

Curtis was a tireless time traveler on a bedrock braided trail, more at home, perhaps, among the ancients than the moderns with whom his lot was cast. He was a gentle man who marveled at nature and reveled in the stories of the past.
—Dan Utley

photo of Jack Hughes and Curtis Tunnell
In the beginning. Jack Hughes (left) and a "skinny kid from Turkey Texas" (right) in the summer of 1952, excavating fossils in the Canadian River region. The description of the skinny kid is from Curtis' own caption for this photo. Courtesy THC. Click to see full image.
photo of a yound Curtis Tunnell
A young Curtis Tunnell and colleague have a "tail-gate conference" in the field. Photo courtesy THC.

In his legendary storytelling Curtis could bring West Texas to life like no other individual. He could make you feel the grit in your teeth with his description of a Panhandle dust storm, and make you shiver with cold at the prospect of a good norther. He could prop his feet up, pick up a guitar, and sing old cowboy and Mexican tunes that would rend your heart asunder, and then immediately launch into an intellectual treatise on some aspect of current scientific or political affairs.
—Robert Mallouf

photo of Tunnell excavating La Belle
Tunnell excavating a trader's box full of beads, mirrors, wooden combs, brass straight pins and other items in the aft cargo hold of La Belle. The discovery of the shipwreck was a particularly sweet success for Tunnell and the THC. As he told the film crew of Nova in 1999: "I've spent the last 20 years of my career looking for this shipwreck. I was starting to wonder if I was ever going to find this old La Salle ship in my lifetime."

Few at the Historical Commission ever fretted about working "for" Curtis. Most of the time, we all worked "with" him, a management technique he felt most comfortable with, and under which we all accomplished much. So much.
—Jim Steely

photo of Tunnell with Ann Richards
Tunnell with Governor Ann Richards. Photo courtesy THC.

We will not see his likes again, and that makes me sad, not just for myself and his countless other friends, but for those generations that follow without the guiding glow that was his life. So, we still have work to do in his memory. His legacy deserves no less.
—Dan Utley

photo of Tunnell at a cistern
Tunnell measures the depth of a cistern, with Dan Scurlock, right, providing shade with a straw hat, at Fort Phantom Hill near Abilene in 1971. Click to see full image.

Personally, I doubt there is an afterworld. …But I could be wrong, and sometimes it is pleasant and comforting to think that there may be something out there waiting for us. If so, I think there is no chance that Curtis and Jack (Hughes) will sit around polishing their well-deserved halos. They will soon find something to investigate, may in fact already be laying out a grid somewhere. If there are streets of gold, they will want to know how thick the gold is, how it was put down, and what lies underneath. And soon, in some otherworldly journal, we may see a report under their names, elegantly written and brilliantly argued, presenting knowledge and insight that even God has forgotten. —Mark Parsons