Leon Duff at his home in Vassalboro. Duff had a 45-year career in education and now spends his time volunteering, including being a board member for Hospice Volunteers of Waterville Area. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

WATERVILLE — Those who know Leon Duff best say he might be the quietest one in the room, but he’s constantly busy, figuring out ways to help those less fortunate.

Duff, 84, of Vassalboro, a former teacher, principal and school superintendent, volunteers under the radar, serving on the board of directors for United Way of Mid-Maine, Kennebec Behavioral Health and Hospice Volunteers of Waterville Area.

When Sue Roy, executive director of Hospice Volunteers, was exploring the idea of opening a retail shop in the basement of the organization’s Main Street office to generate revenue, she ran the idea by Duff, whom she considers a mentor and a friend.

“I said, ‘What do you think?’ I thought he was going to think I was crazy, ” Roy said. “Not only didn’t he think the idea was crazy, he helped me present it to the board. He helped me clean the basement. The two of us drove to a little town in New Hampshire for the day to see how they did it there, in their shop. He’s awesome; he’s just phenomenal. He’s that calm voice of reason.”

The retail shop, in existence several years now, has been successful, selling items donated by the community.

With a dry wit, measured words and a genial countenance, Duff is a strong, constant presence, who lends help in many ways, Roy said.

“He’s the kind of gentleman that, if I said, ‘I’m looking for donations for a grill,’ he’s the one who shows up with a grill on a trailer for our volunteer barbecue.”

Duff is known for telling a certain joke, according to Elizabeth Barron, former president and CEO of the local United Way and new development director for the Maine Children’s Home for Little Wanderers – that “he should get a job so at least he’s able to get a day off once in a while.”

“He’s very dedicated,” Barron said. “He shows up in so many ways.”

Duff is chairman of the United Way’s Education Community Impact Team, which focuses on strengthening children and families. Barron credits him for having United Way officials attend meetings with school superintendents to learn about trends in youth homelessness – and finding out the problem extends beyond the high schoolers the organization had been focusing on.

“It really shifted the scope of the program to K-12, and to this day, we are continuing to work with all the schools,” she said.

Tom McAdam, CEO of Kennebec Behavioral Health, echoed Roy and Barron’s sentiments about Duff, who is chairman of the nonprofit’s finance committee. McAdam said Duff understands the balance needed to keep things running in a service organization and support the people receiving services.

“He’s got this skill set that not everybody has,” McAdam said. “He understands the global role that our organizations play in a community.”

Duff grew up on a potato and dairy farm in Hodgdon, the ninth of 10 children. He attended a one-room schoolhouse, walking more than a mile to school.

He obtained a bachelor’s degree in education from Bob Jones University and a master’s in school administration from University of Connecticut, married his high school sweetheart, Ann, and had four children. He worked as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent in various communities in Connecticut and Maine, including 17 years as superintendent of the Winslow, China and Vassalboro school system. He cared for his wife, who was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, until her death in 2002.

On a dreary day this month, Duff drove from his Vassalboro home to the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville to donate a load of Northern Spy apples he and his wife of 17 years, Barbara, picked from their tree.

“I also garden and take things in to the shelter,” he said.

A year ago, Duff was diagnosed with polymyalgia rheumatica, a disorder that causes muscle stiffness and pain, so he is more limited in what he can do. But he doesn’t plan to stop helping people, including a 99-year-old friend whose husband died several years ago.

“It fulfills my goal,” he said. “As long as I am able, I want to make a difference, and that’s the bottom line.”

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