Macon remembers Habitat co-founder Millard Fuller

In the hours after Habitat For Humanity co-founder Millard Fuller died early Tuesday morning, volunteers for the organization say his legacy will live on throughout parts of Macon in neighborhoods such as Lynmore Estates.

Fuller, 74, died in a hospital near his Americus home after suffering from chest pains, headache and difficulty swallowing, according to The Associated Press. The suddenness of his death shocked many local people who worked with Habitat For Humanity and knew Fuller personally.

“I was very shocked,” said Harold Tessendorf, executive director of Macon Area Habitat For Humanity. “He was always a healthy, outgoing man. ... We wouldn’t be doing the work we’re doing today without the enthusiasm and drive he brought to his ministry.”

Dan Riley, who has worked as a volunteer with Habitat for 22 years, found out about Fuller’s death through an e-mail.

“I knew him personally,” said Riley, of Macon. “I haven’t seen him in a while, but I thought his health was good. He was in very good shape for a man of his age. He was always so active.”

Fuller’s son, Christopher, is the director of Baptist Student Ministries at Mercer University. An employee with the ministry said Fuller was in Americus with his family and not available for comment Tuesday.

“Chris has been very involved with us and has encouraged people with the ministry and the Mercer students to be involved,” Tessendorf said. “Our board, staff and volunteers are deeply saddened by (Millard Fuller’s) passing and our prayers are with his family.”

Fuller helped start Habitat in 1976 in Americus. Since then, the organization has built more than 300,000 homes that have served as shelters for 1.5 million people worldwide.

Fuller’s army of volunteers included various celebrities, including former President Jimmy Carter.

“He used his remarkable gifts as an entrepreneur for the benefit of millions of needy people around the world by providing them with decent housing,” Carter said in a statement. “As the founder of Habitat for Humanity and later the Fuller Center, he was an inspiration to me, other members of our family and an untold number of volunteers who worked side-by-side under his leadership.”

Macon’s chapter of Habitat opened in 1986, Tessendorf said, and the organization completed its 68th house last Friday.

Tessendorf said the Macon Habitat board of directors decided in 2003 to go along with Fuller’s 21st Century Challenge — to eliminate all substandard housing in the U.S. Tessendorf said Fuller was able to accomplish that task in Americus within a nine-year span.

Macon Area Habitat decided to focus its efforts on Lynmore Estates, a south Macon neighborhood that has in recent decades battled crime issues and a declining housing stock. The group aimed to revitalize a defined neighborhood and has completed 13 houses in that neighborhood, Tessendorf said.

“The board made a tactical decision to focus on a given area, based on the inspiration of Millard Fuller,” he said.

Riley said it’s the way Habitat is structured — not giving homes away, but helping people to build and buy them — that drew him to volunteering.

“It’s not a charity, not a giveaway,” Riley said. “You build a decent house with volunteer labor to keep the costs down and sell it to the families who pay it back with no interest on the loan. Rather than it be a handout, it’s a hand up.”

Riley noted that the families also pay property taxes on the homes, which help local government revenue, and that the children who live in the Habitat homes on average stay in school.

“It very much inspires those few to do better,” he said.

Fuller split with Habitat for good in 2005 after allegations of sexual harassment. Though Habitat’s international board of directors ruled there wasn’t enough evidence to substantiate those allegations, the board removed Fuller as CEO.

Fuller later co-founded an organization in 2005 called the Fuller Center for Housing, which supported charitable housing organizations.

Riley said despite Fuller’s issues with Habitat’s board, the good works he did will be remembered in the end.

“There was some controversy when he left, but the good he did so overshadows it. That chapter will soon be forgotten,” Riley said. “The thing he will be remembered for is all the great things that he did, not that little bit of controversy at the end.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

To contact reporter Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.