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Don Pirkle has a big Habitat goal to reach for his birthday

Gainesville resident wants to build his 75th home by the time he turns 75 in September

POSTED: August 7, 2011 1:30 a.m.
/For The Times

Pirkle became interested in the organization after retiring from the Dow Chemical Company and has built homes in Anniston, Ala., and even as far off as Mexico.

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A bit of curiosity years ago led Don Pirkle to a life-changing experience.

"When I retired in 1995, we moved from Michigan to North Carolina. We joined a Lutheran church there," said Pirkle, who moved to Gainesville with his wife, Pat, in 2005. "One day, I happened to be looking at the long-range plan for our church and I saw they had an objective to build a Habitat for Humanity house.

"I went into my pastor’s office and asked him, ‘When are we gonna build this house?’"

Whether it was divine inspiration or just the need to find a leader for the project, the pastor decided that Pirkle would be perfect to spearhead the effort.

"I said, ‘Wait a minute. I have no experience,’" Pirkle said.

Despite his initial hesitance about being the project leader, the house turned out successfully.

After that first project, Pirkle was hooked. He has gone on to help build 73 other homes for deserving families through Habitat for Humanity. Four of those have been in Hall County.

This fall, he will help break ground on his 75th Habitat home as he turns 75.

And it began with that first house in North Carolina.

"We had a men’s group at church, so we organized a group of them to build. But first, we had to raise the money for the house," Pirkle said.

"We asked members of our church to donate shrubbery out of their yard. We went around digging up shrubbery for about two weeks and then had a two-day nursery sale.

"We raised $25,000 and then we got another $10,000 in donations, so we had enough to build the house."

With the money in hand, the men went to work.

"I took 60 of the men and organized them into work teams," Pirkle said. "I said, ‘All I want is one Saturday out of your life for the next three months.’ We worked it out so there were about 20 people each Saturday, working to build this house.

"Habitat was helping us of course. We got the house finished in about three months and handed the keys over to the family just before Christmas that year."

"When I first told my wife I was going to do this, she just about passed out. I don’t have any real mechanical skills. I’m an engineer, but I have never done a lot of building," Pirkle said.

"She said, ‘I think you’re gonna kill yourself.’ The good news is that all of these work sites are supervised by a very qualified supervisor. They’re very patient with you.

"Finally, the work gets repetitive enough that you can get the hang of what you’re doing. Everybody has various level of skills, but at the end of the day, the job gets done."

Although his professional career was spent in marketing and business management, Pirkle’s retirement has been spent developing new skills, learned in the open-air classrooms of Habitat work sites.

"For seven years in North Carolina, I was on a vinyl-siding crew, so I did develop a specialty for doing that," Pirkle said.

"I wouldn’t say I have a high level of expertise though, but we can get it done."

He has met the late Millard Fuller, Habitat’s co-founder, and even worked with former President Jimmy Carter, Fuller’s longtime partner in the organization.

"I worked with him on about three global, blitz build projects," Pirkle said of Fuller.

"Every year, he sponsors a major build somewhere in the world and volunteers come from all over. Essentially everyone is assigned to teams to build a house in one week. It’s a lot of hard work."

The Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project for Habitat for Humanity International began in 1984, when the former first couple led efforts to renovate New York apartment buildings for families in need. Since then, the weeklong project has become an annual tradition.

"The normal deal is they’ll have a blitz build in the United States one year and then they’ll go someplace else in the world the next year," Pirkle said.

Pirkle first participated in a blitz build in 2003 in Anniston, Ala. On that trip, more than 3,000 volunteers helped to build around 100 homes. Pirkle later participated on Carter projects in Mexico and Los Angeles.

He had set a goal to complete his 75th Habitat home by his birthday in September, but a shoulder injury kept him out of commission for a year.

"I’m just now getting back to the point where I can work on a house some," Pirkle said.

But though he won’t be able to finish a home before his Sept. 7 birthday, Pirkle will be able to break ground on one with Habitat for Humanity of Hall County later this month.

Upon retiring from the Dow Chemical Company after 35 years of service, Pirkle could easily have sat back and relaxed. He and his wife enjoy traveling and spending time with their children and grandchildren, but that wasn’t enough for him.

For a man who prefers physical labor to sitting on committees, Habitat has been a perfect fit.

"When I met Millard Fuller and got involved through my church, I saw that Habitat was a very worthwhile organization based on Christian principles," Pirkle said.

"I like this, because these are projects with a defined beginning and end."

Habitat hits the nail on the hail for Pirkle for other reasons, too.

"I believe in helping people, but I’d much rather help somebody who wants to help themselves. These people are not given these houses. They buy these houses and they have to agree to put in so much sweat equity to build them," Pirkle said.

"These are all major upgrades in these people’s lives. Every time I participate in a build, I’m there when the families get their keys. It’s the most gratifying thing you can do.

"It’s a whole new life for them and their children."


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