Curtis Lee Atkinson, 83: Assistant secretary of state for Max Cleland

Curtis Atkinson was known for putting others above himself.

In 1969, he joined U.S. Senator Herman Talmadge’s staff as an administrative aide. Friends and family say Atkinson was the first African-American to work on a U.S. senator’s administrative staff since Reconstruction.

“That’s when he got into public service, and it was during that time that he really got involved in seeing to it that he helped in small business administration,” said Aktinson’s wife, Melvis Atkinson.

Melvis Atkinson said even her husband’s personal life was spent helping others. Whenever someone asked for help, he made the effort to help that person.

When Max Cleland ran for secretary of state in the early 1980s, he appointed Atkinson assistant secretary of state. Cleland said this made Atkinson the highest ranking African-American in state government at the time.

During Cleland’s time as U.S. senator, Atkinson was named deputy state director of his Senate office.

Curtis Lee Atkinson, of Atlanta, died June 26 at 83 years old. He had been in poor health for several years. His funeral will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at West Mitchell Street Christian Methodist Episcopal church. Burial will follow on Sunday in Atkinson’s hometown, Brunswick. Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.

Atkinson graduated from Fort Valley State College, now Fort Valley State University, and earned his master’s degree from Columbia University. He also served in the U.S. Army.

Before joining Talmadge and Cleland’s staffs, he taught government and history, and he knew sign language from his time teaching deaf students. “When he was out and he would see someone signing, he would go and start a conversation with them,” said Melvis Atkinson. “Even after he had his stroke and he had aphasia,” a loss of verbal ability.

Former senator Cleland said he will remember Atkinson for his laughter. Cleland said Atkinson was good at breaking tension in the office and making sure everyone had a good laugh.

“He had a heart as big as the state of Georgia, and his heart went out to the people of Georgia,” said Cleland. “He knew no color bounds, and yet he was a strong advocate for making sure African-Americans were represented in the government.”

Melvis Atkinson said her husband pushed to see not just blacks succeed, but all people. “The song I always think about with him is, ‘If I can help somebody along the way, then my living would not be in vain.’ ”

“I miss him already,” said Cleland. “I miss his presence, I miss his encouragement, I miss his laughter, I miss his dogged determination to serve people.”

Curtis Atkinson is survived by his wife Melvis, of Atlanta, and his brother, the Rev. F. Michael Atkinson, of Brunswick.

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