Wil Haygood Explores the Triumph of Curt Moody and the Tragic Fall of His Brother Toot
The celebrated writer unravels a mystery that has haunted him most of his life: Why did one brother become Columbus’ greatest Black architect while the other’s life took a heartbreaking turn?
Sometimes he’d amble up to one of his brother’s buildings. Toot Moody would stand there, staring, full of pride. And if a stranger came into view, he’d introduce himself as Toot Moody, brother of Curt Moody, the famed architect whose building they both happened to be admiring. There’d be a sweet smile creasing across Toot’s face. But there were also all those other times, times when Toot would be zonked out, high on weed or that damnable crack cocaine, and he’d waltz right by his brother’s buildings, oblivious, roaming from the North Side to the Far East Side, homeless and on the move. There were times when the architect himself would spot his brother on the streets, and that would just rip him up inside: how all the help he had given, the money, love and concern, and how none of it could save Toot. Here was the Moody name etched on some of the most impressive modernist buildings across Columbus, across America even. The buildings went up—the Schottenstein Center, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C.—and Toot kept falling. And falling.
“We lost a legend,” Steve Flannigan, a high school classmate of Toot’s, said to me upon hearing of Toot’s death on Sept. 2, 2020.
He was, indeed, a kind of underground legend, the kind who seems to touch the lives of everyone they ever met.
Growing up, Toot was my best friend. We lived less than a block apart on North Fifth Street. We shot marbles, we played tag football, we played basketball at Weinland Park, never mind the cold winds of November, never mind our runny noses and cold fingertips. And we fished. We’d bolt through the doors at Weinland Park Elementary School when the bell rang to dash home and grab our fishing poles, cheap Zebco 202 reels that we cherished. It was while fishing that I saw Toot die for the first time. We were at Griggs Dam. We were two seventh graders. I fibbed and told my mom I was going to Goodale Park. She wouldn’t have allowed me near Griggs Dam. It was a windy day, and we were fishing a dozen or so feet above the dam, standing a few yards from one another. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a tumble of clothing whooshing downward. It was Toot, having lost his footing. He disappeared beneath the swirling waters. I quickly angled my pole downward for him to grab, but it was too short to reach him. He was underwater. I couldn’t swim. Toot couldn’t swim either. He was under for seconds before popping back up. I saw terror in his eyes. “Help! Help!” he screamed. He went under again. Then there was another splash. A white man—in those days it was so common to identify everyone by race—dived into the water. The white man popped up, his arm around Toot’s neck, Toot spitting up water. On the riverbank, we thanked the wonderful and brave man profusely. Toot shook with fear for a long time.
For years, while traveling in and out of Columbus, I’d Spot Toot on street corners. There’d be halting conversations; he’d mention one of my books, I’d mention the most recent architectural award I’d heard that his brother Curt had won. Toot’s death—after decades of excessive drug use, prison stints—pulled hard on all who knew him. And when it happened, I found myself no longer able to ignore another kind of pull: trying to understand the mysteries of these two brothers, how one rose so beautifully while the other fell so tragically. “Curt and Toot,” says Victor Moody, another brother, “reminds me of that title, ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ Well, they are a tale of two brothers.”
➽ For us kids on North Fifth Street, we experienced the gentler side of the 1960s. All those terrible things that were happening to Black people in the Deep South seemed to have been shielded from us—from myself, Toot, our friends on the street. The fathers on our street mostly had factory jobs, at Timken or American Zinc Oxide or D.L. Auld, the latter of which was actually at the end of our street. Many mothers were homemakers, though some worked in housekeeping at Ohio State University. Among the families on the four blocks of Fifth Street were the Millers, the Lamars, the Barnes, the Penns, the Hopes, the Edgertons, the Butlers, the Moodys, the Haygoods, the Greens. There were two white families. The kids such as myself certainly didn’t know that the marriage of John and Elizabeth Penn, an interracial couple, would have gotten them run out of so many neighborhoods in America. In 1962 Toot and I were 8 years old, riding our Schwinn bikes recklessly up and down the alleys, shooting slingshots at lowflying birds, showing off our new sneakers to one another when we were lucky enough to get them. We even became partners in crime.
The hardware store was on 12th Avenue. It stocked fishing tackle, a magical feature for Toot and myself. It was a sunny morning when we entered the store and made our way to the fishing aisles. We hatched our own two-for-one sale: We’d pay for one lure while swiping another. Toot went first, dropping the purloined lure into his pocket. His boldness excited me, but at the last minute I chickened out. As we were walking to the counter, Toot winced. I looked back at him and a spot of blood—the size of a nickel—had pooled through his pocket: The hook on the lure had snagged his flesh. Blood was oozing. Toot limped his final steps to the counter. Once at the counter I noticed a man staring at us. We made it outside, but the man followed us. “You two. Stop!”
Minutes later we were in a backroom of the store, two men grilling us, telling us we were in trouble. I was strangely relaxed. I had no lures! The men—gent-ly removing the bloody lure from Toot’s leg—asked about Toot’s parents. Someone would have to come to the store to fetch him. “Go get my mom,” Toot told me. I raced to the Moody household. Toot never told me what kind of punishment he got. I do know this: Corporal whippings were in vogue in those days in Black families, the psychology being that bad habits left unchecked in childhood could morph into adult criminal behavior, and that, on top of an unfair world, would only lead to disaster.
At Indianola Junior High, Toot and I went out for the reserve basketball team. We were both frightfully thin, but Toot had more strength than me. While we both made the team, Toot started and I sat the bench, hardly ever playing. After practice we’d walk home, dreaming about basketball stardom, munching on cupcakes, plotting our next fishing outing. We stuck to our routine: fishing, basketball, knocking on the front door of one another’s home on weekends because it was time to dash to the playground.
There weren’t many of us kids eager to frolic along the railroad tracks above Grant Avenue, though William Moody was one. He was fascinated by trains. When family members came looking for him, they began calling “Toot,” as in the toot-toot of train whistles. His nickname stuck. There was such a charming quality about Toot. His smile was sweet, infectious. He was our sepia-toned Beaver Cleaver, the character from one of our favorite TV shows, Leave It to Beaver. “I don’t think Toot ever got in a fight,” recalls Jesse Hunter, an Indianola classmate of ours.
But if Toot and myself experienced the softer side of the 1960s—our wonder years, and the years of our wonder—we were soon to witness the harsher realities. Jessie Moody—“Mrs. Moody” to us kids—died in 1969 from cancer. We didn’t know how to decipher death up and down the street, so no one talked about it. Then came the arrival of drugs into the neighborhood, weed first, then harder stuff.
After high school, Toot, now smoking pot almost daily—and who already had been kicked out of his home by his dad for drug use—became yet another manchild in the not-quite-promised land.
There is, of course, no key to unlock the mystery of families. No psychologist or essayist or astrologist can predict a family’s gyrations, how that family will unspool into the future. Some form of heartache seeps into most every family. After the death of Mrs. Moody, Vera, the only daughter, fled to New York City, deepening the family’s roiling pain.
Yet, if there was one boy who the parents of North Fifth Street would bet on, would tell the world he was going to make it, would vouch for any challenge to his moral bearing, especially his day-to-day stamina when the Moody household seemed to crack under the colossal loss of its matriarch; if there was any Black boy on that street whose parents were more than confident that he would defeat all the odds thrown in his path in the years to come, it was the Moody boy who was always walking up and down the street with large folders of architectural drawings under the crook of his arm. It was Curt Moody.
➽ The Moody children consisted of Vera, Curt, Toot and twins Victor and Vance. The patriarch, William Moody, whom Toot had been named after, was a veteran of World War II who came home to Columbus as a Negro soldier with medals. The medals meant little in a segregated society. William Moody got a factory job. He became an alcoholic, a philanderer and a man with a violent temper. “I remember him beating Toot up one time, bloodying his nose, to keep Toot from telling our mother he had seen our father with another woman,” says Vera.
Basketball pulled at the kids on North Fifth Street because so many of our brothers played the sport. Donnie Penn and Curt were close basketball-playing friends. It was after school one day when Curt was at the Penn house and noticed some drawings on a table in a room. They were architectural drawings. John Penn—Donnie’s father—had wanted to become an architect, but he didn’t finish college and instead became a draftsman (an architect’s assistant) and part-time contractor, often getting hired by Black families. Curt began quizzing John Penn about architecture, and the elder Penn was delighted to share insights. Penn’s architecture knowledge inspired Curt, and he convinced himself he was going to become an architect. He was in the seventh grade.
Curt began doing his own drawings and constructing small model houses with Popsicle sticks. He was starting to think in straight lines, in inches and diameters. He told his guidance counselor at Indianola Junior High of his ambition to become an architect. “She said, ‘You’d be better served trying to be a draftsman,’” Curt recalls. “She didn’t think Blacks were being hired as architects. I don’t think she was trying to be mean. I think she thought she was telling me what she thought was realistic.” The counselor was surprised when Curt won some design awards at the Ohio State Fair while in junior high.
Curt entered North High School in 1966. Less than 15 percent of the students were Black. The civil rights revolution was in full swing. Some of North High’s Black students clashed with white school officials, who warned them about those big, bushy Afro hairstyles, which administrators thought were echoes of militancy. Curt wasn’t rebelling against anything. He was busy playing sports, studying and, after school, peppering John Penn about architecture. “He was an athlete and always a gentleman,” says Cheryl Johnson, a classmate of Curt’s at North High. “Curt was actually the type of Black person white people liked.”
This was the time Curt came into my orbit. No neighborhood, it seemed, was immune to juvenile delinquency. On North Fifth Street we kids knew the teenage miscreants, the boys slightly older than us who were always getting in trouble and then disappearing—taken away for weeks to the juvenile detention center for punishment. Maybe they stole a car. Maybe they were caught with a switchblade. Curt had separated himself from the delinquents. A good many of us kids wanted to model our behavior after his. He was serious and studious. He was an adult in teenage clothing.
At North High, Curt was chosen for the school’s Beau Court. The Beau and Belle dance was a highlight of the school year. Curt was the only Black student among five males selected for the court. If you were chosen for Beau and Belle, it meant you already had a little something extra in life, something others had also noticed, which is what the parents on North Fifth Street had been saying about Curt all along.
➽ Curt enrolled at Ohio State in 1969, turning down multiple basketball scholarships to attend the university because of its architecture school. He had no money to stay on campus, so he lived at home. With so much chaos there, he studied on campus, often late into the evening. Architecture students competed against one another with their projects. “The competition was fierce,” says Elton Jones, one of only a handful of Black students who entered the architecture program with Curt in 1969. “The professors would post projects on a wall, and a jury would come in and judge them.”
Here was the reality of the Moody family while Curt was at Ohio State: Vera, the sister, remained in New York City, sometimes existing on the wrong side of the law. Vance, one of the brothers, was shooting heroin and moving in and out of prisons. Vance’s twin, Victor, had bolted and joined the U.S. Army. Toot, four years younger than Curt, had a factory job at American Zinc Oxide, but in so many ways he felt adrift. “He was selling drugs inside the factory,” says Vera, who communicated with Toot from New York City.
Despite a grueling architecture course load, Curt didn’t give up on his basketball dreams. He made Ohio State’s freshman team. The next three years he made the varsity team, as a walk-on, meaning he had to fight his way onto the team each year. The walk-on glory was minimal, getting into games only in the final minutes of play.
While on the road with the Ohio State basketball team, the players would have a little leisure time. Many would go sightseeing. But Curt liked to stay put, inside the host arena. “I was already thinking I might like to design sports arenas,” he says. “So I’d walk the hallways, look around. I’d even be looking at the arena during games when I was sitting at the end of the bench.”
In American architecture, the saga of Paul Williams stands out. Williams, born in 1894, studied architecture at the University of Southern California. He had an elegant eye, and soon into his career began attracting the attention of Hollywood celebrities. He taught himself to draw upside down, a talent he mastered as he realized his white clients might not feel comfortable sitting next to him, a Black man. Before Williams retired in 1973 as America’s most celebrated Black architect—having designed nearly 3,000 buildings and homes in the Los Angeles area—he had received many of architecture’s most coveted awards. “It’s been so white-male-dominated,” Zena Howard, a Black woman and the managing director of the global architecture and design firm Perkins & Will, says of architecture. “The whole pedagogy is Eurocentric. Architecture took a moment to move from a privileged gentleman’s profession. It was a bit of a sport for the elite.”
In 1982 Curt formed his own company, then, not long after, joined with the late Howard Nolan, an engineer, and Moody-Nolan Design was born. It’s a kind of hybrid company, a combo that, according to many other architects, would prove ingenious. By the end of his first decade as an architect, the reputation of Moody-Nolan had begun to soar. The firm was dependable; they completed projects on time. Curt also believed that considerations about the environment should play a role in architecture. Impressive contracts began coming his way. And by the end of his third decade, Curt had garnered a slew of national awards. He had met senators and U.S. presidents. He had moved into a large office building on the north end of Downtown. If his work didn’t attract the kind of visual attention of a Paul Williams, it was, nevertheless, being mentioned in the pantheon of significant American architects—Black or white. “Curt doesn’t necessarily have a particular ‘style,’” Zena Howard says. “He certainly is a modernist. He does it from the lens of things that make architecture great—colors, tonality, all the things we define as beauty. Curt uses all that, but he’s not tethered to a certain style. I respect that. His style is grounded in values of great architecture. It is modern and progressive.” Howard feels that Curt has had “a titanic impact” upon American architecture.
Through all those years that Curt was forging his rise, Toot Moody was forging his own path—that of a marijuana-selling, drug-taking, sweet-smiling vagabond.
➽ Vance Moody was actually the first Moody to fall from the ravages of street life. He died in 2009, his kidneys having failed him. He was 57 years old. It was, however, always Toot—the baby brother—who garnered the most sympathy, and who seemed to be the most complex member of the Moody clan.
It wasn’t that Toot didn’t dream. He actually had enrolled at Ohio State after high school. His stay was less than a year: “He was selling reefer at Ohio State,” Vera says.He also flunked out.
When American Zinc Oxide closed down, Toot, say many of his friends, felt genuinely bewildered, a salary of more than $20 an hour suddenly gone. “He said, ‘I have to make money someway,’” Victor recalls.
That’s when the drug dealing escalated. And that’s when the police came knocking on Toot’s door. “When he went to jail, he called me,” Vera says. She bailed him out. It was the mid-1970s. Toot had been growing cannabis plants in his home. There was probation.
Now, maybe he’d change. Only he didn’t. The drug addiction deepened. “When I heard Toot was on drugs, it nearly broke my heart,” says Steve Moeller, Toot’s basketball coach at North High.
Toot had married, but Tina Moody could not stay married to a drug addict. Jessica, their daughter, barely saw her father growing up.
Jessica Moody Wharton is a Columbus school teacher. In 2007 I flew from my home in Washington, D.C., to Columbus to attend Jessica’s wedding, a lovely ceremony that took place at St. Dominic Church. Toot showed up looking gaunt and ghostly, and far too late to walk his daughter down the aisle. Her Uncle Chris did the honors. “People ask me why I don’t talk about my father,” Jessica says. “It’s just too painful.” Jessica remembers going to see her father five years ago. He was locked up in Pike County. “He was mad because no one would bail him out,” she says.
Vera, who relocated back to Columbus and studied mental health counseling at Columbus State, believes there were two traumatic events that sent Toot’s life spiraling: the early death of his mother and the abrupt end of his basketball dreams. Toot had failed to make the freshman basketball team at Ohio State.
There were more arrests through the years. “A lot of times I would be mad at Curt because he would bail Toot out of jail,” Vera says.
There were family gatherings. Curt’s own family consists of wife, Elaine, and sons Curtis Jr., David and Jonathan. If Toot showed up, there were questions, about his well-being, his lodgings. He offered a grin to everyone. “I’m happy,” he kept telling Curt, kept telling Victor, kept telling Vera, kept telling anyone who wanted to know.
Curt would be at architecture gatherings: another impressive award being bestowed upon his firm. There’d be dinner served, the clink of fine silverware. Often, while dining, conversations would turn to family. “I could never talk about my family,” he says, recalling all those events and the hurt he carried about his siblings. But in late April this year—he’s scooting around Columbus in his Porsche, pointing to Moody Nolan buildings through the trees, on the street just up ahead, out the passenger side window—he says, “I’m talking about my family now, well, because if people don’t know me now, what I’m about, then they never will.”
The ebony-brown Porsche pulls up to a stop in front of the Jerome Schottenstein Center, where the Ohio State men’s and women’s basketball teams play, as well as other university teams. When the facility opened in 1999, it drew plaudits from admirers around the country and seemed to set a new design standard as a multipurpose university arena. A delicious smile spreads across the face of its architect, the onetime Ohio State basketball walk-on.
Last year, it was announced that the Indianola Junior High building—known to be the oldest junior high in the nation—needed restoration. Because of its historic stature, the job would only go to a top-tier firm. A nationwide search was launched. There were interviews. Curt wanted the job for so many reasons: It was the junior high he attended; it was the junior high whose counselor had tried to warn him away from his architecture dream. Curt is standing in front of Indianola Junior High. Here comes the quiet Moody smile again: His firm won the job; the work is now underway. The Porsche purrs away, rolling by the railroad tracks where his brother used to roam. Toot-toot.
In a career so full of accomplishments, two recent honors may stand above the rest. This year, Moody Nolan was chosen to design the Program, Athletic and Activity Center at the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. That highly sought-after assignment came just a year after Moody Nolan received the American Institute of Architects’ Architecture Firm Award, the highest award bestowed by the AIA in honor of a firm’s “architecture practices.” The firm was the first Black-owned company to receive the honor.
Jonathan Moody, the CEO of Moody Nolan since 2020, received the call that the company had won the AIA award. It was at that moment that Jonathan began appreciating anew his 71-year-old father’s long, hard climb. “As soon as I found out about the AIA award, I said: ‘I gotta call my dad.’ I mean, I couldn’t believe it! Did we really get this? Most of all, though, it was finally getting the recognition my dad deserved. We are a firm, and our firm is built on community stories.”
➽ Toot Moody, then, was a community story. An underground legend.
During that last year of Toot’s life, when his illness worsened, there was no more time for arguments and debates between the two brothers. No more moments of Toot telling Curt that he wasn’t about to get a job at McDonald’s or no damn place else. “He would say he had too much pride,” Curt says. Toot would, however, get to asking about the latest Moody building. And he’d marvel at the furnishings Curt and other family members helped him acquire for the apartment they found him in early 2020, not far from Downtown. And Toot would just beam when Curt showed up to take him fishing up on Lake Erie, returning to the best parts of their childhoods. The Moody family boat’s name: Nothing But Net, an ode to their twin loves of basketball and fishing. Brothers swim in the same bloodline. And still waters indeed run deep.
Toot had cancer and blood disorders. Some days, even with the medical diagnosis, Toot rallied and hopped up on his bike and rode around town. He bragged to strangers about the cool beauty of the Schottenstein Center, about the architect who designed it: his brother. Given his haggard condition, they hardly believed him.
Not long before the end came in September 2020, Toot and I chatted. “You remember that day at Griggs Dam when I almost drowned? And that white man jumped in and saved me?” he asked. Even now, I sometimes wonder what effect that near-death experience might have had on a 12-year-old.
Vera was surprised in those last days of Toot’s life that no one had broached the subject of insurance with him. She leaned over to him one evening—lying in bed he looked so weakened—with a sudden pang of worry. She asked about funeral arrangements. Toot opened his eyes. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Curt will take care of everything.” Which is what the good brother did.
Wil Haygood is a visiting scholar at Miami University, a Guggenheim fellow, a former Washington Post reporter and the author of nine books. He wrote for and guest-edited “Racial Divide: The Raw Reality of Living While Black in Columbus,” the May 2021 edition of Columbus Monthly, which was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.
This story is from the September 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.