The home building industry lost its most passionate advocate for affordable housing today with the death of Millard Fuller. And I lost a friend.
He died unexpectedly after a brief illness, according to a statement released by the Fuller Center for Housing, of which he was founder and president. He was 74.
I first met Millard Fuller in the early 1990s when I was volunteering as the public relations chair for the Broward County, Fla., affiliate of Habitat for Humanity. You could not spend five minutes with him without catching what he called “infectious Habititis.” You wanted to change the world—and he made you believe that you could, because he’d done it himself.
And he really had. He had started his career publishing cookbooks, and he had the pitchman’s gift for taking a very simple concept—in this case, a house and a hammer—and turning it into something irresistible. His marketing skills made him a millionaire as a young man, but his relentless ambition nearly cost him his marriage. He and his wife, Linda, committed themselves to their Christian faith and did one of the most radical things I’d ever heard of. They turned their backs on their wealth and joined Koinonia Farm, a Christian commune in Americus, Ga. He’s going to be buried there on Wednesday.
Our paths crossed many times over the years, both when he would visit South Florida, where I lived, and when I volunteered my professional services to Habitat World, the organization’s international magazine, to cover the Jimmy Carter Work Project (JCWP). Every time we reconnected, I could look forward to a delighted smile and a hearty hug. I never wrote an article that I did not receive a personal letter from him, thanking me. In one letter, he told me that he’d been reading one of my stories http://www.habitat.org/hw/Aug-Sept99/feature5.html on a plane and been moved to tears. I considered it a badge of honor that I had been able to touch his life in a way that he had touched mine—and millions of others—through Habitat.
Last fall, I interviewed Millard after BUILDER selected him as one of the 30 most influential people in home building of the past 30 years. I hadn’t spoken to him since the summer of 2002, when I had gone to Durban, South Africa, to cover JCWP. By then, he had been let go by Habitat International, and he and Linda had started the Fuller Center for Housing.
The man talked to thousands of people a year. I didn’t want to presume that he’d remember me and said so in my e-mail asking for the interview. He called me directly and seemed genuinely hurt that I would think he’d forgotten me.
He told me the story of how Habitat got started with 30 people sitting on the floor of an abandoned chicken barn at Koinonia. He and Linda had just come back from three years as missionaries in Africa, where they had built houses for the poor, just as they’d done in brutally impoverished southwestern Georgia.
“People often asked me, ‘Did you ever dream Habitat would become what it has become?” he said. “I always say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ I still have the minutes of that first meeting. We envisioned a work primarily in the Third World and the rural South, where we saw the greatest need. I never thought it would be in all 50 states, every province of Canada, and all over Europe. But we imagined a worldwide organization. When we were so poor we couldn’t afford chairs, our first goal was to build housing for a million people. We accomplished that in August 2005 with the 200,000th house.”
The same year, Habitat for Humanity International’s board of directors fired Millard and Linda from the organization they started in the dirt. But Millard still felt that there was much left to do.
“I was 70, and I loved what I did,” he said. “This was my calling to provide housing to the poor.”
On Christmas Eve, I was at Sam’s Club buying last-minute supplies for the holidays. My cell phone rang. It was Millard. He was checking on the press release that would be going out on the awards dinner that was coming up. And he had a story to tell me.
He and Linda would be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in August 2009. “Guess how we’re going to celebrate,” he said. He had forgotten that he’d told me all about it just two months earlier.
“Oh, I don’t know, build some houses?” I asked.
“We’re going to build 50 houses to celebrate our 50th anniversary,” he said. “Do you know any builder that’s ever done that before?”
In the news reports today about his death, his wife, Linda, said the anniversary blitz build will go on as planned. Millard wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Pat Curry is a senior editor with BUILDER magazine.