A Lost Child Finds Himself in Adulthood

Reese Hoffa
"What really surprised me is he called me 'Mom' right off the bat," said Diana Watts of the first meeting with her son. "He seems to genuinely care." (Erik S. Lesser - For The Washington Post)

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By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 26, 2005

Reese Hoffa was 4 years old when he burned down his family's house. He remembers the circumstances vividly. His brother Lamont, then 6, held a cigarette lighter to the fabric cords that hung off the curtains, then used a cup of water to douse the flames. When the water ran out, Lamont disappeared into the bathroom to get more, leaving the lighter on the bed. Reese picked it up. He pushed it toward the cords, flicking the silver dial, pleased to see the flame. Then, he recalled thinking, "Uh-oh, the curtains are on fire."

Weeks after the blaze that consumed the two-story home, another moment seared itself into Hoffa's memory. His mother, an unmarried teenager, took him and his brother to a large brick building with long corridors and lots of children. He rode a Big Wheel for a while. Then Diana Chism embraced her sons, got in her car and drove away. Reese ran out the door, shouting for his mother to return. Administrators at the St. Thomas-St. Vincent Orphanage in Louisville wrestled him back in the building, which had suddenly become his new home.

"Deep down inside, I thought maybe she would be back tomorrow," said Hoffa, now 27, who competes today in the shot put at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. "It never happened."

Chism never returned to the orphanage and Hoffa, eventually separated from his brother and adopted by another family, plunged kicking and screaming into a new life. Though at first reluctant and confused, he grew from an introverted child into a successful and huge man -- 6 feet, 253 pounds -- with a sense of humor that seemed to match his size. A natural athlete and relentless worker, he became one of the world's best and most entertaining shot putters, claiming a silver medal at last year's world indoor championships.

As he matured, however, the disturbing memories from childhood did not diminish. The mental snapshots, his only possessions from his youngest days, flashed into his mind again and again, vivid enough to generate questions and frustration, but not substantive enough to provide understanding or peace.

For nearly two decades, Hoffa searched for the missing pieces in his broken history, driven at first by the pain from his youth, then, much later, by plain curiosity and a deep, deep yearning for . . . for what, he wasn't quite sure. The truth? His first family? An understanding of himself? As he looked for something he wasn't sure he would ever find, he had no way of knowing that, all the while, his mother was searching, too.

'Losing My Brother'

After the initial shock of his mother's departure, Reese Hoffa -- born Maurice Antawn Chism -- concluded he had been left in some sort of castle run by nuns. The orphanage housed about 450 children, who slept in a room as big as a gymnasium filled with dozens of beds. He used to sneak around at night, searching for his brother so he could crawl into bed with him.

"I remember it being very cold," he said, "and always being scared."

Of course, he had a good idea why he was there.

"I burned down our house," he said, "and that put a strain on our family."

About 18 months after their arrival at the orphanage, the brothers were driven to a farmhouse in nearby Bardstown. Stephen and Cathy Hoffa -- since divorced -- introduced them to three girls and a little boy. Dogs ran about the backyard and toys filled the children's rooms. They would all be family.

Officials from the orphanage, however, urged the Hoffas to adopt only Reese, saying that Lamont was having problems of some sort, according to Cathy. One day, Reese went by himself with the Hoffas. This time, he remained. He expected Lamont to join him, but he never did.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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