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Bumpy ride led to marriage, business

September 24, 2006|by CANDICE BOSELY

Crist Instrument Co., which specializes in designing and manufacturing equipment for medical research, opened in Hagerstown in 2000.

But the couple who own it got their start thanks in part to a fortuitous bumpy school bus ride more than 50 years ago.

Charles "Chuck" Crist, now 70, and his wife, Joan Burkholder, also 70, have known each other since both were first-graders growing up in Prince George's County, Md.

"It wasn't a case of love at first sight. We were just school chums," Burkholder said.

Crist remembers that his eventual wife's father owned a Ford Model T with no rumble seat. He would give children rides to an ice cream shop.

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Later, in high school, Crist and Burkholder rode the same bus to school.

"One day the bus went around a curve a little sharp and she ended up in my lap," Crist said. "I kind of liked it and I started to pursue her."

Both were in the school band at the time, but Crist decided to give up the drums and start playing the flute. It was no coincidence that Burkholder played the flute and it was also no coincidence that he sought her out to teach him how to play it.

While practicing one day, he said, he decided to make his intentions known and kissed Burkholder.

"And the rest was history," Crist said.

In June the couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. To mark that milestone as well as their birthdays, the couple's family held a surprise party in early September.

The surprise party was complete with hundreds of old photos dating to the 1870s that the couple's family had pilfered from behind their parents' backs.

"Devious children," Crist said good-naturedly.

Two-car garage

Crist Instrument Co. got its start with one machine in a two-car garage in the couple's former home in Damascus, Md. Charles Crist had found himself making equipment for former co-workers, but was charging for materials only - not for his labor.

"I said, 'look, if you're going to do this you at least need to make a business out of it,'" Burkholder recalled saying to her husband at the time.

She has a business degree and offered to run the company. She also had experience in such matters - when she was 16 years old Burkholder was helping to run a family-owned health food store in Washington, D.C.

The company was founded in 1989 and employs 15 people, six of whom are family members.

Burkholder is the company's CEO and handles the business end of things, while her husband, who retired from the National Institutes of Health in 1992, is the company's executive vice president and oversees its engineering department.

Among the company's 15 employees are son Mike, a product specialist who has been involved with the company since its inception; son Kevin Crist, who is in charge of the engineering department; son Pat Crist, who handles sales and marketing; and daughter-in-law - Kevin Crist's wife - Marianne Crist, who handles accounting.

The company has customers from around the world, including at Duke University, University of Chicago, Stanford University, California Institute of Technology, University of Washington, Brown University, and in Europe, Japan and other nations.

Several of its 10 or 11 product lines are used for animal research, but Burkholder and Mike Crist both stressed they work with companies doing ethical research.

They said they have turned down possible contracts with companies that they believed were doing unethical work.

Mike Crist said many of the company's customers work with primates, studying neurology.

"It has a lot to do with mapping the brain. That's more than half of what we do," he said.

The company specializes in making customized products and will tailor other company's products to meet a customer's needs.

"We still have our first customer. He still buys from us," Burkholder said of a scientist at Stanford University who is doing vision research.

After relocating from Damascus, Crist Instrument Co. is based out of a former refrigeration plant on West First Street in Hagerstown, and all of the company's family members live in Washington County.

"Hagerstown did everything they could to help us get in here," Kevin Crist said.

Future plans could include expanding the company's electronics department and buying sheet metal equipment so such work can be done in-house; nearly all of the company's products are now made in-house. The company also hopes to expand its international presence in Asia.

Respect instrument-al

As for Crist and his wife, they each had a different take on what makes a marriage last as long as theirs has.

Burkholder admitted she is less of a romantic than her husband, and credited their success to common interests and mutual respect.

"From my point of view," Crist said, "you shouldn't pick a person you could live with. You should pick a partner you couldn't live without."

"And you never, ever go to bed angry. Always make up," he said.

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