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Mission Possible

Duane and Kelly Roberts restore a California landmark and make a historic gift to Pepperdine University

Duane and Kelly Roberts

Duane Roberts expected to sign the paperwork and join his business partners for a celebratory dinner on December 23, 1992.

But the deal dragged into the night and it was not until 4:45 a.m. that he emerged as the new owner of the historic Mission Inn in Riverside, California. In those predawn hours Duane left his office and tried to tour the inn. He found the facilities, vacant since 1985, enclosed by chain-link fences and protected by security guards. "No one would let me in," he remembers. "The hotel looked so beautiful with the sun coming up. I just walked all the way around the place and absorbed that it was mine."

Like most residents of Riverside, Duane felt a strong connection to the landmark, located only three miles from his childhood home. "As a boy I would visit the Mission Inn, occasionally sneaking into areas off limits to guests such as the mysterious catacombs underneath the hotel." As a teenager he called on his dentist's office among the shops in the hotel rotundaâ€""not a very fond memory," he jokes. In later years he brought customers of his family's business there. Closest to his heart, Duane says, "my mother loved it."

As the hotel fell into disrepair and the challenge of funding its renovation seemed insurmountable, Duane felt compelled to help. "It can be hard to describe to people who haven't lived in the area, but the Mission Inn is just not a building; it's not just bricks and mortar. This place is a living thing and people love it."

Duane reopened the Mission Inn only days after purchasing it. The line of potential employees stretched two blocks as Riverside residents eagerly anticipated the return of their beloved landmark. Although unoccupied for more than seven years, volunteers from local nonprofit organization Friends of the Mission Inn had attentively maintained the facilities.

They protected the art collection, tended to the grounds, and even cleaned toilets. Thanks to their efforts, the hotel was ready to open 50 rooms and one restaurant at a 6:15 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony on December 30, 1992.

The Mission Inn began as just a two-story 12-room adobe boarding house back in 1876. Frank Miller, who later became known as the "Master of the Inn," built the facility into a major tourist hotel befitting the city of Riverside, a popular destination for wealthy easterners and Europeans at the turn of the century. Under Miller's ownership the hotel acquired such famed elements as the Cloister Wing, the St. Cecilia Chapel, the Spanish Wing, and the Catacombs. The International Rotunda Wing, which includes the St. Francis Chapel, was completed in 1931.

The inn's long and storied history includes the visits of U.S. presidents, celebrities, and royals. They came to work, to play, and to celebrate life's pivotal moments. As Duane notes, the hotel "is a meeting place for friends and family, a place to dine in architectural splendor, and a place to wed and begin lives together."

Notable guests Richard and Pat Nixon married there, as did Bette Davis, twice. Ronald and Nancy Reagan honeymooned at the inn, while Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, and Judy Garland all dined in the hotel's restaurants. Teddy Roosevelt, one of nine American presidents to have stayed at the Mission Inn, planted one of the original California navel orange trees on the property. Visiting members of the royal houses of Sweden, Russia, and Japan were honored at banquets. Today the hotel continues to welcome and host distinguished visitors, and is considered both a community and financial success.

Duane hears the echoes of his youth as he strolls the corridors and stairwells of the revitalized Mission Inn.

The happy children roaming the hotel bring to mind the days when he scurried through the Catacombs and crept to the top floors after hours. From an early age he was creative, resourceful, and bold, all characteristics that propelled him to success.

When Duane was just a boy his father, Harry Roberts, founded a local meat company called Butcher Boy Food Products, Inc. It went on to become a major supplier of hamburger patties to the original McDonald's restaurant. Young Duane acquired a keen business sense while watching his father run the business. He also learned that people thrive when they care about what they do.

Before age 20, Duane recognized the growing place of fast food in the American diet. He developed the first commercially available frozen burrito and in 1964 he took over as president of the Roberts family company. Under Duane's leadership the company produced more than one million burritos a day. The new president increased sales over 2,850 percent and created 1,350 new jobs. By 1980 he had built Butcher Boy into a prominent Riverside employer and the largest frozen Mexican food manufacturer in the world.

Trusting his good business sense, Duane sold the company and began a robust career investing in stocks and bonds, real estate, and other financial assets. Today his diverse business and investment portfolio is managed by his Entrepreneurial Corporate Group (ECG). Among the companies under the ECG umbrella are a private capital investment company, an internal lending and strategic financial investments company, and a real estate investment company. Building upon Duane's expertise in food products, ECG also owns three food manufacturing companies in the United Kingdom. Together they employ 900 people.

In all his business enterprises, Duane holds fast to the lessons of his youth. "My parents always told me to leave the earth in a better place than when I got here, and that's what I'm trying to do," he says. That attitude resonates deeply with Duane and his wife Kelly, who are both dedicated philanthropists.

The couple first met while volunteering for a political organization. They have been married for nearly 15 years. Kelly's daughter Casey is currently an undergraduate student at Seaver College, and her son Doug, a professional baseball player, takes classes at Pepperdine in the off-season. "Family means everything to us," says Kelly. "We all have a lot of drive, passion, and adoration for each other. We work hard and we love deeplyâ€"each other, our community, and those who need our help."

Together the family takes on numerous opportunities to support others in need. In honor of his mother, Duane founded and endowed the Mary S. Roberts Foundation, committed to helping children with special needs, families of crime victims, the hungry and homeless, and domestic animals requiring care and protection. Casey founded the C.A.S.E.Y. Foundation (Children's Alliance for the Success and Education of Youth in Need) in 2002. The organization helps promote education and its empowering effect on young people.

The Robertses also hold leadership positions with the Riverside Humane Society Pet Adoption Center, one of California's oldest and most successful adoption outlets. A benefactor of the arts, Duane was appointed by President George W. Bush as a member of the board of trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

A lifelong California resident like her husband, Kelly graduated from USC with a bachelor's degree and subsequently earned a degree in law. She currently serves as vice chair of the board for the Historic Mission Inn Corporation and is involved in multiple political organizations.

Three years ago, Kelly envisioned bringing a special element to the Mission Inn. In addition to the 239 hotel rooms, five restaurants, shops, and meeting facilities, the inn is also now home to Kelly's Spa. "We travel extensively around the world," Kelly says, "and one of my passions is improving health. I combined these loves in Kelly's spa. I bring back treasures from all the spas I visit overseas so guests feel like they're in Europe, getting some of the best treatments in the world."

Visitors to the Mission Inn are greeted with a comforting motto: Entre, es su casa, amigo, or "enter friend, this is your home." Generations of distinguished guests have felt at home in the Mission Inn. Today they also receive the world-class treatment available at the hotel and Kelly's Spa. This dual sense of feeling at home and getting the very best is one of the things Kelly and Duane like most about the inn, and a characteristic they similarly recognize in Pepperdine University.

The Robertses are well known to Pepperdine. Kelly serves on the University Board, is a Pepperdine University Life Associate, and proudly parents two Pepperdine students. Kelly and Duane recently strengthened their ties to the University when they funded Pepperdine's first endowed dean's chair, a position currently held by School of Law dean Ken Starr.

Ronald Phillips, vice chancellor and School of Law Dean Emeritus, notes the importance of their endowment for the Duane and Kelly Roberts Dean's Chair. "Duane and Kelly are dear friends of mine and of Pepperdine University. They are a dynamic couple who exemplify many laudable characteristics, such as their entrepreneurial success, their devotion to family, their loyalty to friends, and their unwavering support for those causes in which they believe."

The endowment is a testament to the Robertses' belief in Pepperdine and its School of Law. Under Starr's leadership, the school is positioning itself as one of the top Christian law schools in the country. Outstanding faculty like Pulitzer Prizewinning historian Ed Larson, noted real estate expert Grant Nelson, and faith and law authority Bob Cochran dedicate quality time to mentoring students. Specialized organizations like the Geoffrey H. Palmer Center for Entrepreneurship and the Law and the Herbert and Elinor Nootbaar Institute on Law, Religion, and Ethics offer students unique interdisciplinary learning opportunities as well as access to stimulating conferences and symposia. At every turn, the school demonstrates a firm commitment to the mission of Pepperdine University.

"Our involvement with Pepperdine law school is one of our proudest accomplishments," Kelly says. "We are so impressed by the work being done at the school and its increasing stature. From the faculty and students to staff and administrators, Pepperdine is a class act."

Pepperdine president Andy Benton expresses gratitude for the transformative nature of the Robertses' gift. "The Robertses' endowment is a tribute to the University's past, a celebration of its present, and an investment in its future. Their supreme confidence in Pepperdine will leave an indelible mark on the School of Law."

The gift will help the school to continue its pursuit of excellence, as student trial teams win prestigious international awards and graduates take jobs in the top of their field. Distinguished guests such as Nobel

Laureate Dr. Muhammad Yunus and John Roberts, chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, will continue to provide the community unparalleled access to the world's most influential thought leaders.

Just as the Robertses found a home at the Mission Inn, so have they done at Pepperdine. "It was important to the school to identify the dean's chair with a couple who exemplify the Pepperdine spirit," Phillips adds. "Duane and Kelly Roberts are a perfect fit. They are truly a Pepperdine family."

Originally published in Pepperdine People magazine.

by Megan Huard