FORT WORTH - Even as a youngster, venerable Tarrant County District Attorney Tim Curry dealt with criminals.

One of his schoolmates was Lee Harvey Oswald.

So it seems like destiny that for most of his adult life, Curry has directly or indirectly held the fate of the county's most famous - or infamous - criminally accused in his hands. Their names are easily ticked off: Charlie Brooks, Diane Zamora, Chante Mallard, George Lott, T. Cullen Davis.

But now Curry, the longest-serving criminal district attorney in Texas, is waging a fight far tougher than any courtroom battle he or his passionately loyal assistants have ever fought.

The 70-year-old prosecutor has lung cancer and is undergoing difficult treatments that left him hospitalized for about 10 days last month.

Those who know and worked with Curry, though, say that no matter what the future holds, no illness could diminish his legacy and that Tarrant County citizens owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

"That's 30 years of leadership that is untainted and clean," said State District Judge George Gallagher, who, like many others on the Tarrant County bench and bar, was once employed by Curry.

Through spokespeople, Curry declined requests to be interviewed because of his health. He was released from a Fort Worth hospital Dec. 19 after an adverse reaction to his medication and does not plan to return to work until after the holidays.

Close friends, however, said that Curry still expects to make a full recovery and complete the final years of his four-year term, which ends in 2010.

"He's in good spirits," said Joe Shannon, who leads the department's economic and computer crime unit and is one of Curry's childhood friends. "He's got a lot on his plate."

In recent months, Curry has lost some of his hair because of the cancer treatments. He often sports a baseball cap.

"He was a little concerned about losing his hair, and I told him 'You'll fit right in,' " said Shannon, who has known Curry since they were students at Arlington Heights Elementary School in Fort Worth. "Look at half the men walking around downtown."

Curry graduated from Baylor Law School in 1963 and joined the family law firm of Curry and Curry, run by his father and brother. He stayed there until he won his maiden election for district attorney in 1972, running as a Democrat; he hasn't lost a race since.

He managed to avoid the pitfalls that sometimes overtake other political figures. In the 1980s, when Tarrant County was clearly becoming a GOP stronghold, Curry took stock and switched to the Republican Party.

Among those he has defeated over the years is Terri Moore, first assistant district attorney in Dallas County, who was an assistant under Curry for 10 years.

She lost two DA races to her former boss, but when she came to work for new Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins in 2007, she brought some of Curry's innovations with her. For example, she said Dallas County can thank Curry for its open-files policy that allows defense attorneys to routinely look at cases the district attorney's office is handling.

That, Moore said, signals what justice and fairness are all about.

"Tim Curry has done a really good job on creating some common sense, good prosecution programs and policies," Moore said. "They didn't have that here, and that was implemented on day one when Craig Watkins walked in the door. Curry has always had an open-file policy. He didn't have to be persuaded."

Also, Moore said, Curry has always surrounded himself with a solid staff of attorneys.

"That's a good office. I would say that is a really good office with some outstanding people working there," she said. "Tim Curry has always done a great job at hiring super qualified lawyers to carry on good work."

Jack Strickland, a former prosecutor and prominent Fort Worth defense attorney, is one of those disciples. During his interview for an assistant district attorney's job, he told Curry that he wanted to work for him but would decline death-penalty cases.

"Tim looked at me, sized me up and hired me anyway," Strickland said. "I've always taken that as a sign that Tim Curry has a pretty open mind. He could have dismissed me as an idealistic young man, but he didn't."

Texas oilman T. Cullen Davis proved a formidable foe for Curry's office.

In 1977, a jury acquitted Davis - then the richest American ever tried for murder - of charges he killed his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Andrea Wilborn.

Curry, whose middle name is also Cullen, was an active member of the prosecution team. Their defeat in that historic court case came at the hands of a man who today readily calls Curry "a good friend."

"Tim is a great guy," said Richard "Racehorse" Haynes, the flamboyant Houston defense attorney who became as famous as his client during the Davis case.

"He makes decisions based on the law," Haynes said. "I think he's the one of the best DAs. He's straight up. He'll tell you just how it is. He doesn't play politics. I'm glad that people in Fort Worth keep electing him."

While Curry's job is high profile, he is not. Soft-spoken and shy, he even takes a late lunch most days to avoid the noontime crowds, friends say.

"People assume that because he's not in front of a camera, he's not active," said Alan Levy, head of the department's criminal division. "He serves the public. Trying to compare him to more modern styles where the general purpose of holding public office is self-promotion - he's not like that. He's not looking for the next job."

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