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Unconventional Life

Law graduate, LGBTQ rights activist buys pirate ship in Amsterdam

Scott Curry-Sumner's ship in Holland

From The Ichabod - Fall 2017

Every great tale has a careful balance of ingredients, but perhaps the most important of these is unpredictability. In the best stories, the winds of fate blow the protagonist’s ship off course, and what happens next is anyone's guess.

A life, too, can be a page-turner. Take, for instance, Scott Curry-Sumner, jd '97, a Kansas native with a craving for adventure. In a newfound urban life on the west coast, he discovered his life's mission. But, eventually, fate stepped in to change his trajectory. One day, Curry-Sumner was graduating from the Washburn University School of Law, a young lawyer bent on blazing legal trails. Then life deposited him where he presides today, aboard a pirate ship-turned-houseboat docked on a river in Amsterdam, Holland. Living out a life he never would have predicted, Curry-Sumner is a father, an expatriate and the recent subject of a popular television show.

“Looking at where I've gone from Washburn forward, I'm really proud of it,” said Curry-Sumner. “There's a lot that has happened between then and now. I could write a book for every decade.”

Curry-Sumner’s most recent adventure is home ownership. The "Natalie L." is christened after his seven-year-old daughter, Natalie. At 60 years old, Curry-Sumner has settled in an unconventional home befitting the unconventional life he’s led. Father and daughter live on the spacious 20th-Century vessel and run a bed and breakfast below deck.

"It's a very romantic ship, and I absolutely love it," said Sumner.

Earlier this year, HGTV's House Hunters International featured Curry-Sumner and his search for the perfect
houseboat in Amsterdam. In 18+ minutes of footage, viewers get a glimpse into his go-with-the-flow personality. When a realtor asked him about his requirements for the property, Curry-Sumner hesitated.

"I'll look at anything," he admitted at last.

"He knows exactly what he wants," said a friend who accompanied him on the televised real estate venture. "But he won’t know it until he sees it."

Curry-Sumner is a semi-retired attorney and teacher of law focused on Natalie's upbringing and satisfying travelers at his floating lodge. But how did he get here from his Kansas and Washburn beginnings?

Curry-Sumner completed his undergraduate degree at Wichita State in the late 1980s, then caught wanderlust. In the mid-1970s, he found himself in San Francisco. As a member of the gay community, he was witness to the devastating AIDS epidemic at a time when little was understood about the virus.

"We didn't know what it was," said Curry-Sumner. When friends were hospitalized, he said, "We were told not to visit because no one knew what it was or how it was spread. My circle of friends included 42 people. By the time I'd returned to Kansas, there were only two of them alive."

Curry-Sumner’s experiences on the west coast had a politicizing effect. Back in Kansas, he became involved in civil rights, women's rights and LGBTQ rights.

“I was pretty much an activist, but everything was moving too slowly in Kansas. I thought the faster way to go was to become a lawyer, and champion the rights of gay and lesbian people, especially those with AIDS," said Curry-Sumner. "In Kansas, I thought I could have an impact. At that time, if you were gay, lesbian or trans, it was hard to get someone to represent you who would treat you with respect."

Curry-Sumner values the relationships he built at Washburn Law. He was a research assistant to professor Nancy Maxwell, whose mentorship was a driving force. He pursued a career as an attorney addressing LGBTQ rights, and Maxwell’s enthusiasm was the wind in his sails.

After law school, he began a practice in Wichita, where he worked in adoption law assisting birth mothers while his business partner represented gay couples seeking to adopt. Curry-Sumner recounts the work was groundbreaking for Kansas.

"At the time, it was very difficult for gay and lesbian people to adopt," said Curry-Sumner. "We used the law to the best interest of our clients.”

He was also commuting to Topeka to teach at the law school. Maxwell invited Curry-Sumner along on a work-related trip to London, where he met a fellow scholar of law, Ian, and began a long-distance relationship. After two years, the couple knew the situation had to change.

"We needed to commit to each other and decide where we wanted to live. It came down to a decision between the U.S. and the Netherlands," said Curry-Sumner.

In the Netherlands, they could pursue their dream to legally marry, and so the couple decided Curry-Sumner would be the one to move.

Curry-Sumner taught law in Maastricht, and whenever possible, the pair traveled the world. Eventually, they settled down a bit and decided to start a family.

“It took 5 years, but we ended up getting the adoption," said Curry-Sumner of the arduous process of bringing Natalie into their lives. "I fell in love the first time I saw her."

Although Ian and Curry-Sumner recently divorced, they still have mutual passion for Natalie's upbringing. They split custody, and Natalie gets to travel widely with her father, Ian.

"Natalie has been all over the U.S., Turkey, Budapest, Paris and about every capital city of Europe," said Curry-Sumner.

While Curry-Sumner’s life is more stationary than ever, he still manages to find adventure right at home.

"The best thing about having a B&B on a pirate ship is that people come to me,” said Curry-Sumner. “I've had people from every continent except Antarctica. They tell me about their country, and
I've learned so much more about the world than I ever did while traveling.”

Winter 2019 Ichabod magazine cover with Bob Dole statue on front

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. Read the 2018-19 winter edition online and look for it in mailboxes in January.

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