It was just hotel chitchat, the kind that happens when a bigwig swoops into Dallas and the mayor and business leaders flock to his reception. They shook hands, swilled bottled water and bantered about goals.
In this case, the honoree was a tall, lanky fellow with a Jed Clampett drawl and enthusiasm so contagious that the world's poor and the world's rich, and a lot of people in between, champion his cause.
U.S. presidents pound nails for him. Celebrities paint walls. Corporations flex their bank accounts. He even stirs Republicans and Democrats to work together without a hint of political strife.
|"Building homes is not just good religion...It's just plain good common sense."|
Even so, it's not Millard Fuller's name, but that of his organization that the public recognizes.
"Most people in this country think that Jimmy Carter started Habitat for Humanity," said the 66-year-old housing visionary from Americus, Ga. Then he laughed and shook another hand.
Ever since founding Habitat 25 years ago, Mr. Fuller and his wife, Linda, have worked at putting their cause -- rather than themselves -- in the spotlight. Their nonprofit Christian ministry has built more than 100,000 homes in 76 nations.
Now in their 60s and balking at retirement, the Fullers said it will take just five years to build the next 100,000 homes. With a worldwide budget of $450 million, Habitat builds homes for low-income families, primarily using volunteers, including former President Carter.
"Building homes is not just good religion," said Mr. Fuller, the son of a Alabama sharecropper. "It's good politics, it's good sociology, it's good economics. It's just plain good common sense."
Although trained as a lawyer, Mr. Fuller sounds more like an evangelist when he gives speeches. He's more down-home friendly than flamboyant, and while unabashedly Christian, he draws people of every faith and of no faith to the table.
"That's the theology of the hammer," Mr. Fuller said. "People who may not agree on a whole lot else will agree that everybody deserves a simple, decent place to live."
A Habitat banquet with Mr. Fuller drew the mayor and corporate leaders, but also prison inmates, teens and retirees -- all volunteers on Habitat homes.
"I hear you're going to build 50 houses in Dallas this year," Mr. Fuller told them. "Why not 52? You don't want to build 50 houses and leave the other two weeks of the year out. That's just unheard of."
His words hung as a friendly challenge, not a criticism. The crowd responded with applause and with laughter because of Mr. Fuller's humble manner, yet unyielding zeal to build more and more homes.
"This man inspires you to do more," said Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who's pounded many a nail at Habitat projects. "Thousands of people have a roof over their heads because of him. I don't know how other folks define saint, but he's my kind of saint."
Rita Smith, a 46-year-old housewife from DeSoto, turned out to see Mr. Fuller. She'd heard about Habitat a few years ago while watching The Oprah Winfrey Show and now she works on a building crew every Thursday.
"It's the most rewarding thing I've ever done," she said. "You trim a door, do some roofing and before long you have a house. And there's nothing like seeing the moment when a person is finally able to get a home of their own."New goals
During a recent three-day stop in the Dallas area, the Fullers did what they do best: rally the volunteers, thank the donors, schmooze the city's top brass. They also dedicated another new Habitat house which, after 25 years, still brings tears to Mr. Fuller's eyes.
The Fullers have received numerous honors for their work. In 1996, Mr. Fuller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
But for many years, the Fullers lived a no-frills life -- rarely eating out, wearing homemade clothes, existing on a meager salary -- while raising millions of dollars to put roofs over others' heads.
They even refused to have air conditioning, despite Georgia's sweltering heat, to set an example for the people they were trying to help.
"Summers were horrible," said Faith Fuller, 33, one of the couple's daughters. "But when you're building houses for poor people, you can't install air conditioning or suddenly they have these huge electric bills that they can't pay for."