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The House That Love Built
The Story of Millard and Linda Fuller, Founders of Habitat for Humanity and the Fuller Center for Housing
By Bettie B. Youngs
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Bettie B. Youngs
All rights reserved.
Young Millard Fuller
When Millard was six, in 1941, his father gave him a pig and told him to fatten it for market, telling him he could keep the money.
His father, an independent grocer just outside a little town called Lanett, Alabama—"serving the community of Coleville and surrounding area"—sold feed to his son on credit. He helped Millard with record-keeping, showing him how to keep accurate records. When the hog was the desired weight of two hundred pounds, they took him to market. True to what his father had told him, he gave young Millard the proceeds from the sale of the hog. The profit: $11.
His father then helped Millard select a male and a female pig so that he could raise, in Millard's words, a "bunch of pigs." Motivated to repeat the success he had achieved with the first hog, Millard was dutiful about keeping the fences mended and plenty of table scraps along with bagged feed for the pigs to eat. Millard continued raising and selling pigs until junior high school. "Almost every hog I raised brought more profit and I faithfully put the money into a savings account," Millard recalls. He decided to invest in rabbits. Over three years, he built up a population of over a hundred rabbits. He sold dressed rabbits to restaurants and in his father's store, and sold live baby rabbits to children for pets. "I especially did a booming business in selling young live rabbits around Easter time," Millard would report. Still, the rabbit business had its problems. Sometimes the rabbits would develop a severe case of ear sores. Huge scaly patches would develop in both ears and the condition would cause their ears to droop. "No one wanted a droopy-eared rabbit," Millard recalls. Ever the problem solver, he discovered that if he applied a 2% solution of salicylic acid to the sore ear, the cure was complete and amazingly fast. "Almost overnight all the droopy ears perked up and I had decent-looking rabbits again," he cheerfully explained.
"Another problem with raising rabbits," said Millard, "is that stray dogs wanted to kill them." One night they ripped open a pen of rabbits, devouring fourteen of them. Millard was broken-hearted—but his father was furious. The next day young Millard came home from school to discover his father sitting on the back porch, with a rifle across his lap. In front of him was a pile of dead dogs. "I've got fourteen dogs so far," he announced. "My father had been sitting there all day with that rifle, shooting every dog that came by," Millard lamented. Then he added with a grin, "Thankfully, none of the dogs belonged to neighbors! But, we didn't have any more problems with dogs eating my rabbits."
Ear sores and predatory dogs aside, it was a rattlesnake that convinced Millard to get out of the rabbit business for good and to look for a less problematic venture. One evening as Millard was filling a pail of water behind the family home to water the rabbits, he turned on the spigot and stepped back—onto a rattlesnake. The snake bit, Millard cried out in pain, and his stepmother came running to the rescue, as did a lather-faced neighbor in the midst of shaving, straight-razor still in his hand. Millard's foot was slashed open with the razor, and his foot thrust into a pail of kerosene to draw out the poison. "I bled so much it looked like an old-fashioned hog-killin'," Millard said, "but when my father took me to the hospital, the doctor took one look and told my father, 'You've done all that needs to be done; he'll be fine now.' That pretty much killed my desire to raise any more rabbits." Millard promptly sold his rabbits and used the proceeds to buy fifteen cows.
The young entrepreneur continued to expand his experience in different business ventures with the encouragement of his father. Millard helped his father in the grocery store, delivering orders of groceries on a bicycle until he got a driver's license. "I really hated the grocery business," Millard admits, "but I loved the time with my father. He spent a lot of time with me. My mother had died suddenly when I was three and he tried to be both dad and mom to me. When I was six, my father remarried a wonderful woman and I was blessed with two half-brothers. But it was from my father that I developed a real love for business and for making money, long before I even graduated from high school. He encouraged and motivated me. He taught me to be self-reliant and self-starting and to be thrifty and saving. 'A dollar saved is a dollar earned,' he'd say. A dollar was important to my father and he worked for his. But he was generous and would open his pocketbook for any person in need. He had as big a heart as any man I've ever known. And he loved children: Hundreds and hundreds of times I'd see him pick up a child in his store and hold the child over the cookie jar he always kept on the counter and let the child take all he could hold. Always he beamed as he watched the child walk out of the store with his two hands packed full of cookies. I just loved that about him. I truly loved him with all my heart."
Millard continued to keep books and turn a dollar into two, and then into three. In high school, he joined Junior Achievement whose mission was to teach teenagers about free enterprise. Millard learned to set up a miniature corporation and go into business. He learned to produce a product, sell stock, make a profit, and liquidate the company at the end of the school year. One summer he worked the "graveyard shift" (11:00 p.m. until 7:00 a.m.) at Lanett Bleachery & Dye Works and also caught minnows in country creeks. He dug a little pool beside his father's store to keep them alive and sold the minnows to fishermen for bait.
By the end of his senior year in high school, his mind set on growing a business one day, Millard set about putting him-self through college. "I knew I wanted to go into business, and I wanted it to be big, profitable, and successful," Millard recalls. "I wanted to be rich, and knew I would be." The drive to be successful motivated Millard to test the waters of various occupations the following summer.
In Detroit, Michigan, he tried his hand in one of the automobile factories, choosing the job because of the opportunity to make good money and the experience of working in a large company. His Aunt Avis lived there with her husband and family. He got a job at the Gemmer Steering Gear Factory, operating a drill press on the second shift. In this position, a gear mechanism would be handed to him from the man on his right. Millard would place it under a drill press and pull the handle down. That would drill out a hole. Then Millard would pass the mechanism on to the man on his left for him to drill a hole somewhere else. "It definitely was not the most interesting job I've held," Millard said. "As a matter of fact, it was more boring than I could stand."
A few days later he found a second job, as a door-to-door salesman of ladies hosiery and undergarments for Real Silk Hosiery Company. He did his selling in the mornings and early afternoons and then went to work at Gemmer Steering Gear Factory. "I learned a whole lot about the psychology of selling from my employment with Real Silk Hosiery Company," Millard said, "but I wouldn't say I loved this job either."
Within weeks, Millard was weary of the job at the Gemmer Steering Gear Factory. He told his Aunt Avis good-bye and thumbed his way to the upper peninsula of Michigan, hoping to get a job working on the bridge that was being built across the Straits of Mackinac. That search was unsuccessful, so he headed to Flint, Michigan. There, he worked at a bakery, helping unload flour from a railroad car.
A second job in Flint was with a small company that built houses. It was vigorous outside work and Millard loved it. "I met a real character in this job," Millard says with a laugh. "The guy's name was Bob, a guy who was long on friendliness and talking, but short on brains and memory. Seems that Bob had a problem remembering people's names, so he called everyone 'Shorty.' When he needed someone to do something, he simply yelled out, 'Hey, Shorty ... do this or that, bring this or take that.' So every worker had to look up when he yelled 'Shorty,' because no one knew to whom the guy was talking."
As is his nature, Millard decided to help the guy out by teaching Bob to remember his name. "Bob," he said, "my name is not 'Shorty,' it is 'Millard.' Here's how you can remember that: I'm sure you've heard of Willard Batteries. So when you want to call me, think of a battery. Then think of Willard. Last of all, turn the 'W' upside down and that makes it an 'M,' for Millard. Call me by that name, 'Millard.'" Bob agreed to do that, but even so, when he wanted to get Millard's attention, continued to call out, "Hey, Shorty!" Millard decided not to answer him and so Bob would quickly say, "I mean, Hey, You!" Determined to get Bob to think deeper, Millard took to ignoring Bob completely. Frustrated, Bob then yelled out, "Okay, I know your name has something to do with a battery. Is your name Eveready?" Peals of laughter erupted from the men around, but ole Bob, no matter how hard he tried, could never remember the name "Millard." "I did not succeed teaching Bob how to remember my name," Millard concluded, "but I sure tried!"
If ever Millard needed confirmation that he wanted to "make it big" in a company of his own, that summer provided it. After a few weeks of work in Chicago delivering furniture for the Goldblatt's Department Store, Millard bought a second-hand Plymouth automobile and drove south to Alabama, thus bringing to a close his "work-travel" summer!
September was upon him, and Millard turned his attention to college. He decided upon Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, not far from where he had been raised in Lanett. He approached his college education much the way he had his employment experiences during the summer. With his eyes set on the prize of success, he was an eager student, absorbing all he could that would help him achieve his goal of wealth and prosperity. He started working toward a degree in agricultural engineering, but decided that designing farm machinery was not for him, so switched majors and would eventually earn a degree in economics with a minor in mathematics and physics.
At Auburn, Millard was characteristically involved in campus activities. He wrote a column for the student newspaper The Plainsman. At age nineteen, he became the program director for Junior Achievement in nearby Opelika, Alabama, making him the youngest program director of that organization in the United States. Foreshadowing his ability to make a career out of being persuasive, Millard entered into a campus-wide debate with a fellow student, William Callahan, on the topic of "Resolved, that the states shall have the right to nullify a Federal Supreme Court decision." They argued on both sides of the issue and won first place in the competition.
When he discovered there was only one political party on campus, Millard organized a new political party, the War Eagle Party, and then ran for president of the student body, organizing such a successful campaign that he came within a few votes of winning. That experience, plus taking a political science course at Auburn, whetted his appetite for national politics. With the help of a professor, Millard qualified to run for alternate delegate to the Democratic National Convention, which in 1956 was held in Chicago. Having no money, Millard had to hitchhike to Chicago to attend the convention. On his first day at the convention, the man for whom he was alternate had to leave because of a family emergency. Millard became a full delegate. He met John Kennedy along with many other political figures—quite an amazing experience for a twenty-one-year-old!
But no experience could have been more indicative of his penchant for creating business opportunities than when he got involved in a profitable enterprise with Donald Moore, a distant cousin and fellow Auburn student. Taking note that the trees on campus were loaded down with mistletoe, Donald and Millard decided to pluck, package, and sell it. They got permission to cut it, then rigged up sharp hooks on long canes and started clipping the mistletoe. Their sales were good, but limited to what they could sell personally. Mistletoe would figure into Millard's future business ventures again with a new partner and would lead to the most financially successful time of his young life.
An Eye on the Future
On June 4, 1957, Millard graduated from Auburn University. During his senior year, he had interviewed with several companies and had seriously considered accepting a job with Babcock and Wilcox Steam Boiler Company, Creole Petroleum (in Venezuela), or a bank in Mobile, Alabama. But nothing had clicked with him. Sitting in the Student Union building one day, a fellow student, Jim Gullage, came by and told him that he'd be taking the Law School Aptitude test at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa the next day, and would he like to go along? Millard agreed to go with him, reasoning that law school would be helpful in either a business or political career—or anything else for that matter. Six days after graduating with an economics degree from Auburn, Millard found himself enrolled in the University of Alabama Law School.
There Millard attended a meeting of the Young Democrats and met a student named Morris Dees, a sharply dressed, fit young man with curly blond hair. The two hit it off and afterward, Morris offered Millard a ride home. Their conversation turned to business. The two young men discovered they had much in common. Both had been reared in rural Alabama. Morris, too, had raised cattle. He was interested in politics and, as a schoolboy, had engaged in various enterprises. And he had long dreamed of developing some kind of business. Idea after idea, the two students discussed various projects and how they could be made profitable. On and on they talked. Before either of them realized it, it was 2:00 a.m. Agreeing that they would be partners, the young men shook hands and said good night—neither knowing they'd be inseparable for the next eight years, but believing that they'd help one another "get rich."
Get rich they did. After years of growing a successful business with Morris, young Millard Fuller would become a wealthy, experienced businessman with an eye ever on growth and the future. This singular drive, when refocused years later, would absorb his time, passion, and commitment, and would improve living conditions for millions of people. Millard would turn his business acumen toward the pursuit of a new goal: to eliminate poverty housing worldwide. As the founder of Habitat for Humanity and The Fuller Center for Housing, he would make it his goal to convince people in every country on Earth to join in the movement that makes decent shelter a matter of conscience and action. It would not be a goal he could accomplish alone—hundreds of thousands of volunteers would be needed in this quest to build and finance simple, decent homes for all the world's poor. He would need to rely on his extraordinary charisma to persuade people, his seemingly endless supply of energy and creativity, and his unusual ability to remain focused through the most egregious distractions. All of these skills so invaluable in leading a movement would be discovered, practiced, and honed over many years and under wildly diverse conditions—from the wealthy neighborhoods of Montgomery, Alabama, to the shacks of urban Zaire; from muddy construction sites to corporate boardrooms. And from inspirational leader to slandered figurehead.
But before Millard was ready to take on an international housing movement and all that came with it, he would go through a process of growth, deconstruction, and reconciliation that would make him the man he is today, a faithful servant working in partnership with God to change the lives of millions of people around the world, and thus, one of the most revered men of the twentieth century.
Excerpted from The House That Love Built by Bettie B. Youngs. Copyright © 2007 Bettie B. Youngs. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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