Heidi Hagemeier

ORTLAND - Chris Duffin's home is a place of blooming fruit trees and large sunny windows, surrounded by a white picket fence.

It's the refuge he returns to after a day of tackling capital budgets and capacity planning as production leader at Clackamas-based Warn Industries. He supervises 50 or so employees who manufacture parts for truck winches.

On weekends, the 28-year-old spends time in domestic tranquility on the Southeast Portland property that he purchased with his girlfriend. He dives into homeownership projects or tinkers with his off-roading Jeep in the garage, rebuilding it, testing it out, rebuilding it again when he's not satisfied.

It's normalcy that he cherishes.

”I'm really happy with where I am at,” he said.

For Duffin, a middle-class life wasn't a foregone conclusion.

He grew up as the oldest of four siblings in a destitute, transient family that spent about three years being homeless.

The situation became so bad at one point that his parents asked state officials to put him and his three sisters in a foster home. They didn't want their children to live this way anymore.

He worked hard, earning straight A's and athletic accolades. But when it came time to apply for scholarships, Oregon State University passed him up and other organizations turned him down.

It appeared that Duffin - a 1995 La Pine High School valedictorian, star wrestler and Habitat for Humanity volunteer when he grappled with poverty himself - might not go to college.

But Duffin said that at age 18, he was determined that his life would be different.

He opened up about his life to The Bulletin in 1995, a tough task for one who rarely talked about his circumstances. In response, Central Oregonians began pouring in donations to help send him to college.

Duffin continued on a path of sacrifice - one that included holding down a full-time job and becoming a parent to his younger siblings while in college.

Eventually, he made it out of poverty.

The achievement makes Duffin a rarity, and an example.

”For Chris to come out of that cycle is the exception, not the rule,” said Rusty Zysett, who taught and coached Duffin at La Pine High. Having attended numerous trainings on poverty and seen it firsthand, Zysett said many who grow up in impoverished homes will live like their parents.

As a senior in high school, Duffin swore to a newspaper reporter that he would not let it happen.

”You can always sit there in self pity and say, 'Oh, look how bad life is treating me,' or you can just get down and do it,” he said. ”You can go out and live life and not let life live you.”

A long road

When Duffin was a child, his family stayed on the move.

Duffin and his three sisters trailed his mother and stepfather, who pursued work in California and then throughout Central Oregon. They lived near Madras for awhile, then in tents in the Ochoco Mountains outside Paulina.

It was during this time, including a harsh winter spent sleeping in the back of a pickup, that Duffin decided his life would be different.

The situation improved when Duffin's stepfather received a small injury settlement, which he used to buy a double-wide mobile home for the family in La Pine.

Entering high school there, Duffin dealt with his life setbacks by working harder.

He eventually covered his La Pine High letterman's jacket with medals. He earned academic awards like one presented by the Oregon Council of Teachers and the Oregon Department of Education for outstanding math achievement.

He admits now that absorbing information in class perhaps comes more easily to him than others. ”That's one thing I've probably been pretty lax about is studying,” he said.

But outside school, sister Melissa Smith recalled him rarely sitting still.

”I think he's a bit of a workaholic,” she said.

He pounded nails for Habitat for Humanity and helped distribute baskets to the needy at Christmas. He held down a job waiting tables, giving the tips to his family.

Zysett remembered Duffin announcing at the end of wrestling season his junior year that the following year he would be the district champion.

”There was nothing in his previous performance that would indicate he would do that,” Zysett said. ”It was a tough division. Sure enough though, he ends up winning the district championship.”

”He just kind of has a way about him that, 'I'm going to figure this out, I'm going to achieve it,' ” he continued. ”You just believed in him.”

One day before the school year began, Zysett ran into Duffin running wind sprints with a friend on the high school football field. Duffin convinced the teen to join wrestling and that they should start getting in shape then for the winter sport.

”I always say as a high school teacher and coach, life is a big cliff,” Zysett said. ”Most high school students are somewhere on that cliff. Some fall to the bottom and pull others down - misery loves company.”

”Others figure out how to get on top and pull others up to their level. That's Chris - he made everyone around him better.”

During his senior year, Duffin set his sights on his next goal: to study engineering and wrestle at Oregon State University.

The disappointment seemed great, then, when the university rejected his bid for a $10,000 scholarship. Unwilling to saddle himself with huge amounts of debt annually, he resolved to work, save money and after awhile attend Central Oregon Community College.

Still, it seemed a dream denied.

Scrambling for scholarships, Duffin applied in 1995 for one sponsored by The Bulletin. It required an essay.

Duffin wrote about his family life. The Bulletin didn't choose him for the scholarship, but someone did pass Duffin's essay on to a reporter.

Cooperating for a story taxed Duffin. Even people who interacted with him regularly didn't know about his situation.

”My initial reaction was to cry because I had no idea Chris lived like that,” Zysett said.

”It was difficult,” Duffin said. ”I'm not very good at exposing myself. But obviously, I had an objective out of it, which was to go to school.”

Donations rolled in. But more importantly, a professor at the Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT) in Klamath Falls spotted the story.

The professor secured Duffin a scholarship.

College days

Lounging on the couch in his Portland home, cat Arthur Fonzarelli shifting on his lap, Duffin laughed when considering whether he led a typical college life.

Duffin isn't one to let up on the throttle.

At OIT, he completed the courses for his manufacturing engineering major in three years. He decided against finishing a second major in mechanical engineering.

During his senior year, Duffin worked on his senior project, bought and ran a paintball business, organized a trip to California as president of OIT's chapter of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, and started working full time supervising manufacturing crews at Jeld-Wen, a Klamath Falls window company. He also bought a house.

But one of the most significant challenges during his college career was becoming a parent. During his junior year, Duffin legally adopted his oldest sister, Melissa Smith, then 16.

”He was a good role model,” Smith said. ”That's when I started to change.”

At the time, she had dropped out of high school, gotten into drugs and had no place else to go. She moved to Klamath Falls and, at her brother's urging, started working full time.

Duffin's other two sisters, Janis Smith and Amy Smith, have lived with him on different occasions since. He became the person who provides stability in their lives.

Several years after Duffin had been in the work force, he decided to quit and travel for a year. Yet when one of the sisters suddenly had no place else to go, Duffin set aside his plan. He had already quit his job, but rapidly found another to again take up his role as provider.

One sister was living with him as recently as December.

Melissa Smith said her brother served as a wise figure, even though they acted more like roommates than parent and child.

”I put a lot of responsibility on their plates,” Duffin said. ”They've made their own ways in life. They're all good kids.”

Melissa Smith, 22, is now attending Clackamas Community College. Janis Smith, 21, is married and has a young child. Amy Smith, 19, found a job and is working full time.

”They're always calling asking for advice on something,” Duffin said with a grin.

All live in the Portland area. Duffin is the nucleus of family life, as his stepfather died several years ago and his mother moved to Mitchell and isn't a regular part of their days.

Melissa Smith believes she and her sisters are all on positive trajectories because of their brother.

”He kind of excels at everything he does,” she said. ”There's never anything he does half way.”

”Compared to, like, regular families,” she continued, ”we're actually doing pretty well.”

Enjoying life

Even with a secure paycheck and stable home, Duffin has to continue striving for something.

Several years ago, it was going back to school at night for a masters in business administration at the University of Phoenix, which then had a campus in Hillsboro. He did so while working full time and taking care of his family.

In his position at Warn Industries, Duffin also feels pushed to do well. He likes working for a company so committed to giving its employees good benefits and contributing to charitable causes. Duffin can rattle off all the different local organizations Warn employees volunteer at and give to.

But right now, his challenges revolve around weight lifting and off-road sports.

After work, Duffin heads for Nelson's Nautilus gym in nearby Oregon City. He changes from collared shirt and khakis to tank top, shorts and high-top Chuck Taylors, black with red and orange flames.

”He's an animal,” said Preston Nelson, owner of the gym, as Duffin headed for the Power Pit, a weight room devoted solely to heavy lifting. ”He's so quiet, though, that you wouldn't know.”

Duffin has broken down his power lifting workouts into six-week schedules. This day, he does a light workout, which involves a bit of dead lifting - wearing a weight belt and hauling a bar with weights from the ground to waist level. Duffin soon cranked it up to 500 pounds.

On Saturday, Duffin was slated to compete in a power lifting competition in Newport. Results were not available by press time, but he hoped to break the national bench press record. He was 2 pounds off the 580-pound record last time.

His overall goal is to bench press 600 pounds.

”I like power lifting because I don't have to watch what I eat and I can do this with the time I have,” he said. ”I've got a lot going on besides this.”

The lifting regimen has packed muscle on Duffin. In high school, the 5-foot-10-inch Duffin wrestled in a 172-pound division. Today, he weighs about 245 pounds.

He fuels his body by eating every two hours, including setting his alarm for 1 a.m. so he can down a protein shake.

At one point, Duffin started simultaneously training for the Hood to Coast running race, jogging five miles a day on top of lifting. After body pains, his doctor told him he could only do one pursuit vigorously.

”So I was able to say my doctor told me to quit running,” Duffin joked.

When not in the gym or spending time with his girlfriend, elementary school teacher Lisa Staver, Duffin is often out in the garage in the back of the house, working on his souped-up, off-road Jeep.

He went from knowing nothing about auto mechanics two years ago to teaching himself to take the rig apart. The couple and friends recently took the Jeep to Moab, Utah, to explore the red-rock canyon country.

It provides enough challenge in life, for now. As he sat on his couch, hand on Staver's shoulder, Duffin said he is certain his future will be a bright one.

”The things I do, I want to be the best I can be,” he said.

Heidi Hagemeier can be reached at 541-383-0353 or hhagemeier@bendbulletin.com .