DEXTER – Cindy Curry remembers the day in 1989 when the toddler who used to bite her until she bled came back.
“He came in with his hands clenched like this,” she says, standing in the middle of her living room, her hands straight at her sides, her fists balled, “and he blurted out a bunch of swear words.”
Jonathan Paul Curry, the boy they would all come to know as “Big Jon,” was about 3 1/2 then, when the ever-growing Curry family lived in Redding, Calif.
He had first come into the home of Chris and Cindy Curry in 1987 when he was a year old, taken from his drug-addicted mother and put into California’s foster care system.
She got him back after her release from jail – but not for long.
“It wasn’t a safe situation,” Cindy Curry recalls.
Not when a man Jon Curry remembers only as “Nacho,” one of his birth mother’s boyfriends, tried to drown him in a bathtub.
“He was trying to kill me,” says Jon Curry, now 29, sitting in his parent’s home on Tuesday.
“The police told me they could hardly get the guy off him,” Cindy Curry says.
Jon Curry believes the man is serving a life sentence somewhere, but he’s not sure.
What he is sure of is that he landed back in the right place all those years ago.
“I know that everyone says their parents are the most amazing people, but in attempting to look at it objectively, I think we’d have a much better society if there were more people like them,” says Jon Curry, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs somewhere just north of 300 pounds.
What amazes Chris and Cindy Curry is what will happen at 6 p.m. Friday in Corvallis. Jon Curry will become just the second of their 17 surviving children to graduate from college when the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering at Oregon State University holds its commencement ceremony.
The main commencement ceremony for the OSU Class of 2015 is Saturday morning at Reser Stadium, but Jon Curry will not be there.
He’ll be at the Curry family home in Dexter, where as many as 100 people – including brothers and sisters flying in from places like Wisconsin and North Carolina – are expected to attend a barbecue to celebrate Big Jon’s accomplishment.
“It’s a big deal,” Cindy Curry says.
Especially when you consider the odds Jon Curry has overcome.
Take away the physical abuse he endured as an infant and a toddler, and the fact he grew up in a family of 20 children, 15 of them adopted, and watched three of them die, there is still this: Less than 10 percent of former foster children in the United States graduate from college, according to Foster Care to Success, a national nonprofit organization that works with college-bound foster youth.
And researchers at the University of Chicago found in 2010 that only 6 percent of former foster youths had earned two- or four-year college degrees by age 24, according to a 2013 New York Times story.
Those not in college may be in jail; 34 percent who had left foster care at age 17 or 18 reported being arrested by age 19, the University of Chicago study found. Two of the Curry’s 15 adopted children, whom they initially took in through foster care, are incarcerated for various crimes at the Two Rivers state prison in Umatilla, Cindy Curry says.
Granted, Jon Curry is getting his bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering at age 29, but he is getting it, almost seven years after transferring to OSU from Lane Community College, where he played basketball for two seasons.
He has already landed a job, too, as a supervising production engineer at WaferTech, a semiconductor contract manufacturer in Camas, Wash., where he will start in July.
“Jon has overcome this stuff through hard work of his own,” Cindy Curry says.
Jon Curry says he put himself through college at OSU, paying his own way through a mixture of working one or two jobs at a time and applying for scholarships, grants and financial aid.
The Currys adopted Jon when he was 6 or 7 and they were still living in Redding. A few years after moving to Oakridge, after Chris Curry became the principal at Life! Lutheran School in Eugene, Jon Curry had grown into a big, mean bully of a teenager.
He says he was never into drugs or alcohol, he was just loaded with fury.
“There were a lot of issues, like me fighting siblings,” Jon Curry says. “I was just angry at the world.”
By the end of his sophomore year at Oakridge High School, he was often skipping class, sometimes entire school days, and had a 0.45 grade point average.
His confrontations with his siblings got so bad that Chris Curry, now the pastor at Pleasant Hill Lutheran Church, rented a home in town so that just he and Jon could live there. But he didn’t go through with it.
Somehow, something changed in Jon after Cindy Curry told him once he was 18, he would be out on his own.
“I’m going to get to 18 years of age, and I’m going to be homeless,” Jon thought to himself. “Just, the realism, hit me.”
Cindy Curry will never forget the day that Oakridge High School Principal Don Kordosky called to say things were improving. In fact, she still has the Post-it notes on which she hurriedly jotted down exactly what Kordosky was saying:
“I just wanted to pass on a message on what a great job the staff thinks Jon is doing. You know, we’ve had a complete turnaround in his attitude and behavior and his participation in class is up. We think he’s really learning. So, people here are really happy with him. I thought I’d pass it on to make sure you knew … he’s going to get his high school diploma …”
Jon Curry also shed about 60 pounds back then, going from about 275 pounds down to a lean 215 as he became a star player on the Oakridge High basketball team.
One of the keepsakes Cindy Curry kept from those days is a copy of a February 2005 “Dead Mountain Echo,” Oakridge’s weekly newspaper.
“Happy Valentine’s Day to all the girls in school,” reads the headline across the top of the front page.
Jon Curry, then 19, had gone to Reed & Cross in Eugene and bought a rose for every single girl at Oakridge High. He did this, with the intention that it would be anonymous, because he knew not every one of those girls would get something for Valentine’s Day.
But word leaked out, and there he was posing for a photograph with all those girls, more than 50 of them, and their roses in the school gym.
Jon Curry was undergoing some sort of metamorphosis. He was developing a sense of compassion.
Cindy Curry would see it again when one of her adopted children, Charlie, was slowly dying of heart failure at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland in 2012. Jon and some of Charlie’s other brothers would visit him there, but Cindy Curry remembers how just before Charlie’s hospitalization, Jon would sit on the porch with Charlie, who was born developmentally disabled and with a bad heart, and reload his cap gun for him so he could shoot it again and again.
Two years earlier, the Currys lost adopted son Tim, less than a year older than Jon, who died in a group home in Eugene at age 24 of a seizure disorder.
And many years before that, one of their five biological children, daughter Lizzy, died in Redding, shortly before her fifth birthday, of Biliary atresia, a congenital liver disease.
She and Jon were close, as close as young children can be at that age.
“Lizzy would say, ‘We forgot to pray for Jon,’ ” Cindy Curry says of that year he was gone, after his birth mother briefly had him back. “She prayed every day for him to come back, and one day he did.”
First place award for best education coverage in the 2016 Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association “Better Newspaper Contest.”