Starkman: Metro Detroit Mourns Passing of 'Gentle Soul' Richard Curbelo

February 02, 2021, 7:25 PM

The Red Wings honored him at a recent home game.

The columnist, a Los Angeles freelancer, is a former Detroit News business reporter who blogs at Starkman Approved.

By Eric Starkman

The passing of Richard Curbelo, who died two weeks ago undergoing a routine colonoscopy at Beaumont Health’s flagship Royal Oak hospital, reaffirmed a belief I know anecdotally to be true: Very bad things disproportionally happen to really good people.

When I first got word of the horrific tragedy – colonoscopies are statistically very safe procedures that can prevent colon cancer – my immediate instinct was, “I’ll bet the victim turns out to be a selfless individual with a loving spouse, took care of an ailing parent, and who friends and colleagues insist was among the nicest people they’d ever met."

Richard Curbelo

I pretty much got that right.

Beaumont COO Carolyn Wilson several months ago shared a video with Beaumont employees featuring her and her family joyously smiling on a deck. The intent of the video was to let Beaumont’s staff know that Wilson wasn’t just a ruthless cost cutting executive earning about $2 million a year, but also a mother and a grandmother.

Given Wilson’s desire to humanize, we at Deadline Detroit thought she, along with CEO John Fox, Chief Medical Officer David Wood Jr., and board chairman John Lewis, would appreciate knowing more about the colonoscopy patient who died under the medical care the four of them were ultimately responsible for.

Curbelo and fiancée Connie Strong

First Marriage

Curbelo, 51, never got the chance to become the loving spouse he no doubt would have been. In two weeks he planned to marry Connie Strong, a Windsor mental health care worker, at the Southfield home he shared with his mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Curbelo was his mother’s primary caregiver. It would have been the first marriage for both Curbelo and Strong, who is 48.

Tribute at the site he launched

Curbelo was a longtime Detroit sports reporter and founder of the InDBeat Sports site. The industry respect he commanded was such that the Detroit Red Wings featured a tribute last Saturday on its Jumbotron, which was widely shared. Strong said Curbelo’s time increasingly was spent taking care of his mother.

Curbelo and Strong were longtime friends who met at Boogie Fever Café & Disco in Ferndale 15 years ago, and the relationship blossomed into a romance. In normal times, the drive from Strong’s place in Windsor to Curbelo’s home in Southfield was an easy 25-minute drive, but the pandemic forced the closing of the Windsor/Detroit border last summer.

A love letter he sent to fiancée Connie Strong

Curbelo and Strong last saw each other in August, but they texted and talked multiple times a day. Curbelo loved to send Strong flowers and love notes, often signing them “Your future husband.” To wed this month, Strong planned to either drive or fly to Toronto and then fly into Metro because international airports remain open. Curbelo preferred that she fly because Strong is recovering from cancer surgery.

Strong last week tried to place obituaries in the Detroit Free Press and News but was told only confirmed family could do that. A fiancée has no legal standing, despite an abundance of proof that a union was imminent. Here’s the obit she wanted to place:

Richard Rafael Curbelo

November 4, 1969  January 21, 2021

Passed away suddenly and tragically, while in the hands and care of trusted medical professionals for a routine colonoscopy at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, Michigan.

Beloved son of Susan Curbelo, and Rafael Curbelo, (1989). Loving fiancé of Connie Strong. Brother to Linda Curbelo. Best friend to Jason and Kort. Loving nephew, cousin, and uncle to beloved relatives in the Curbelo and Gargaro families. Kind friend and positive role model to Elijza and Chloe Strong. Thank you to family, friends, and to the community for condolences and support during this horrendous time of grief and profound sadness. Richard was a gentle soul, with a kind heart, contributing to the positive impact he made on others. You are deeply loved and will be missed. A celebration of your life, to honour and pay tribute to you, will occur at a later date and time. Rest peacefully my love. 

Since Deadline Detroit identified Curbelo as the Beaumont colonoscopy victim, legions of friends and colleagues have reached out to let us know how Curbelo impacted their lives. Others posted tributes.

Turns out, Curbelo lived a life of quiet greatness.

Here are some of the tributes Deadline Detroit has received permission to publish:

Ken Kal, Detroit Red Wings broadcaster

The last flowers Curbelo sent to fiancée Connie Strong

I’ve known Rich Curbelo for many years and am saddened by his loss.

Rich was a very hard-working guy who you always saw in the post-game locker room media scrums gathering sound for various media outlets.

I can recall countless times seeing him get off the elevator at JLA, sweating, hustling to get from the locker room to the press box in an effort to quickly forward his audio. As he raced by me, he always had a brief second to say hello and ask how I was doing. 

I remember him working the midnight shift as a card dealer at a downtown Detroit casino for a time. That shift suited him well because it didn’t interfere with his sports reporting coverage, a job he truly loved.  

Rich always looked out for others as well.

While I was president of the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association, Rich asked if there was a way that we could help new members get into the business. Our board of directors met and because of his suggestion, we began to place job postings from various outlets into our newsletters whenever they became available. 

My best goes to his family and fiancé Connie during this most difficult time. I’ll always remember Rich as a kind, hard-working and caring person who loved sports.

Joey Yashinsky, sportswriter

Curbelo at Southfield Lathrup High School 

Rich Curbelo did not have the biggest sports reporting platform.

Never had the cushy on-air gig at 2, 4, or 7.

But he had heart, plenty of it, and made his presence felt in and around the Detroit sports media scene for the better part of two decades.

I met Rich as an intern in the WXYZ-TV sports department. I'm not sure what his title was at the time, but I do know one thing. He always tried to lend a hand.

If he had an assignment to go work stats in the CBS truck for a nationally televised game at Crisler Arena, he'd ask me to come along and gain experience. As a college kid, it meant a great deal.

We would eat a pre-game meal with Bill Raftery and Verne Lundquist. I'm 99 percent certain that neither Raftery nor Uncle Verne knew Rich on a personal level. But you couldn't tell.

His unique way way of communicating made it seem as if everyone in the building was a longtime friend.

Rich wouldn't just coldly ask some unemotional question to an athlete or coach in the locker room. He'd do it conversationally. Or kind of sidle up as he posed his thought. Every word he spoke was accompanied by a related gesture with his head or hands.

Nothing he did was without motion.

But emotion, he carried in droves.

Rich was as likely to stop and say hello to an usher or elevator operator as he was to fawn over a Hall of Famer. Your title didn't matter. He was friendly and sweet, to the core.

And his level of professionalism was unmatched.

A Tigers playoff game (when those were still in existence) or a mid-major women's hoops contest would be treated with the same care and passion. And it was insignificant whether his material was going to be seen by hundreds or far fewer.

He respected the process, and he was good at it, too. Watch one of his rinkside stand-ups after a Red Wings game and you can picture an alternate universe where with a little bit of luck and timing, he could have been bobbing that head and moving those hands on a network station.

Some might have known him as "Richie Rich." Or as the legendary Channel 7 sports producer Reggie Hall affectionately nicknamed him, the "B.H.B" (Big-Headed Baby).

Rich took it in stride and with a smile, like he did everything else.

George Eichorn, Detroit Sports Media Association

I have known Richard for almost as long as he’s been a sports broadcaster and writer. He was a unique talent and remarkable individual. His zest for life and sports encompassed everything he would do. He was always ready to cover a game or a press conference or a major event.

As a member of Detroit Sports Media and the former Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association, I would often take the time to talk with Rich before and after games while in the media center of our local teams. He was always ready to help too in case I needed recordings of interviews or press briefings. He loved sports with a passion and always went out of his way to greet me.

I loved the way Rich took time to say hello to his colleagues in the business but also the workers and ushers and security personnel at the games he was at. No matter one’s title or job, Rich was always interested in how things were going in their lives. I will miss you greatly my friend and I pray that you find lots of games to cover in the afterlife. God bless your dear mother and fiancé and many countless friends. 

Mike Beck, author

I have many, many memories with Rich. We all grew up together. We went to elementary together, Leonard Elementary School. Middle School, Birney Middle School. And Southfield Lathrup High School.

The Crew consisted of me, my brother Rob, David Tobar, Dan Koblin and Ken and Andy Gutman. Every day -- and I do mean every day -- after school we would get together and play baseball, football, or basketball. We also got to go to the arcade his parents owned. That was back in the day of pinball. We slept over each other's houses. We would snack all night, listen to music and watch Saturday Night Live.

As we became teenagers, things shifted to our love of sports. Especially the Tigers and those Piston Bad Boys teams. And of course, girls. Rich would always make me laugh doing a little move and saying, "You gotta shake what your Momma gave you."

As an adult, Rich continued with his love of sports. He especially loved the Tigers and could tell you anything about them dating all the way back to their championship in 1968 (the year before he was born.)

One year we even got to enjoy doing a sports talk show together. "The Sports Den" on WCAR 1090 AM. Co-hosted with Rich. I was "The Armchair Quarterback" and my brother Rob was the producer. It was a call-in show and we had a lot of fun.

As adults, we all grew apart. We talked every so often just catching up on life. A few years ago, I did get a chance to meet up with Rich and visit his Mom, Sue, when she was in the hospital. Always saw Rich at Tiger games and the last time, we met up for dinner at Buddy's Pizza in Dearborn.

I'm glad he found Connie. He deserved to have someone who really loved and cared about him. Just wish he could have had more time with her.

Rich was truly a nice guy. That nice kid from the neighborhood who never changed. R.I.P Rich. I hope he's covering the Detroit sports scene in heaven.

Mike Alberts, sports reporter

Curbelo with sportscaster Dick Vitale

I’ve attached a photo of Rich on a very happy and emotional day nine years ago when they dedicated the court at Callihan Hall and recognized Dick Vitale.  Rich was there, like he so often was, grabbing soundbites with his recorder, asking questions, and sizing up the situation. 

From the practice sessions at the Superbowl in 2006 at the Silverdome, to dinners prior to the Pistons games, sitting in the press box at Comerica, Rich was a quiet witness to so many of Detroit's iconic sports moments.  We all became more distant in 2020. 

I hope Rich has found peace, his family is somehow taken care of, and that his stories live on as they documented some of the great moments in the history of Detroit Sports.  

Scott Harrison III, broadcaster and professor

I would not have had a radio sports broadcasting career without Rich. He broke

me into the business as his partner with the American Sports Radio and Prime
Sports Radio Networks.

During our many years together, I also hosted and co-hosted sports talk shows on WCHB-1200 AM and WJR-760 AM.

Rich taught me everything there was to know about the airwaves. My best memories are of the days and nights we spent working at his house while his dear mother showered us with love. She treated me like a son and Rich treated me like a brother. I will never….ever.…forget that!

I am now in my 15th year as an adjunct professor teaching communication courses at various institutions of higher learning. I will continue to be as strong a mentor for my students as Rich was for me. It was an honor to know this tremendously kind-hearted man. May The Lord grant peace and tranquility to his fiancée and the entire Curbelo family.

Bruce Madej, retired sports information director, University of Michigan 

The news of Rich's passing not only hit me like a ton of bricks, but it also was a sorrowful shock to everyone who worked with Rich at the University of Michigan Communication Department. Rich was always a gentleman and a true professional. He was a kind, generous soul. Prayers for his family and friends. We will all miss Rich.

Alisa Zee, radio broadcaster

I first met Rich in 2006 when Detroit was riding a sports high. Some of the highlights included Detroit hosting the Super Bowl in February and the Tigers having a run at the World Series later that year. I was new at the time to the world of sports reporting

Rich was so kind, welcoming and helpful. He was always at the ready to answer questions or offer his insights. Additionally, Rich often offered to share his audio if I was unable to make it into the locker room. Rich was the quintessential "good guy." He had a way of looking at the world with a childlike exuberance and a joy that emanated from his core. I never saw Rich without a genuine smile on his face. His passion, his love of life and his kind and giving nature will surely be missed. The press box won't be the same without him.

Craig Fahle, Deadline Detroit podcaster and host of "The Week That Was"

I first met Rich Curbelo back in the 90s when I was a young reporter. I covered politics almost exclusively, but on rare occasions I would cover sporting events.

The first time in the press box at Comerica Park, I was a bit intimidated, as the sports press back then wasn't the most welcoming place for young reporters.  Rich was an exception. He was friendly, outgoing, and interested in me and my work.

I didn't see him often, but he was always the first person I would say hello to on return visits to Ford Field or Comerica Park.  He was a guest on my radio show on a few occasions when the Tigers, Wings, Pistons or Lions were doing something interesting.  He loved live radio, and always considered himself lucky to be able to make a living covering sports.  Mostly, he was just a nice guy.  

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