Nickel is a metal that’s both strong and remarkably versatile. These two qualities also describe Walter Curlook: an engineer, executive, community leader and teacher whose extraordinary career was forged not just in and around the nickel mines of his native Sudbury, but in work that took him around the world.
Curlook (BASc 1950, MASc 1951, PhD 1953), who died October 3 at the age of 85, rose meteorically through the ranks at Inco Ltd: from research metallurgist to top executive at a time when the company stood atop the world in nickel production. Curlook himself invented more than a dozen process patents: even at the highest administrative level, he remained an engineer at heart.
“He was an executive, but he also got right down in the labs and contributed directly to technical development,” says Prof. Doug Perovic of materials science and engineering. “He insisted on staying close and keeping his ear to the ground; he just worked so hard.”
He also pioneered environmental responsibility in the mining industry. “Under his leadership, Inco was always progressive in the environmental area,” says colleague Mansoor Barati. A $600 million sulphur dioxide abatement program, completed in 1993, was described as the largest environmental project ever completed by the industry.
The vast array of initiatives Curlook supported is testament to a lifelong love of education. He convened a board of supporters to save the materials science department from disappearing in the 1990s and, after retiring from Inco, launched a teaching career at U of T, bringing invaluable real-world expertise to students. “He was interested in our students being well-rounded beyond the specific things that we teach – particularly in the financial side of how companies operate,” says Perovic.
Curlook left a lasting legacy for the department in 2013 – a gift that founded two laboratories in the Wallberg Building.
“Pit bull” is the affectionate term that comes to Perovic’s mind now, when he thinks of Curlook. “He was the most loving, big-hearted person you could meet,” he says, “but his passion, spirit and energy were boundless, and that could be intimidating. He always wanted to do better – and he expected that of others as well.”