100 Houses, Many Stories For Veteran Habitat Volunteer

Waco electrician using skills to give others ‘a better life’

By Pamela Bond

Waco Tribune-Herald

June 18, 2007

The smell of sawdust fills Cliff Johnson’s nose, hammers pound loudly above his head, and the heat of an upcoming late spring day causes droplets of sweat to shine on his face. But the 85-year-old Wacoan does not pause to wipe the sweat away as he stares intently at the electrical wires he holds in his solid yet gentle hands.

After wiring 100 houses in more than 20 years with Waco Habitat for Humanity, working these building sites is second nature for Johnson, who has no intention of slowing down.

“I set my goal to do 100, but if I can do more, I will,” he said. “I meet a goal and then set a new one. I have a knee replacement in July, but I hope to come back and do more.”

Habitat for Humanity is an international nonprofit Christian housing ministry that builds homes for low-income families, said John Alexander, executive director of Waco Habitat for Humanity. Johnson started working on his first house for Habitat for Humanity in 1986 after he retired from his job as an electrician.

“No, I didn’t retire, I just quit working for money,” Johnson said. “A lot of people sit down on the couch and just watch TV. I’m out here at 7:30 a.m. They call me a slave driver, but I came here to work.”

Growing up in Hamilton County on the Leon River, Johnson said that his family “didn’t have a lot.”

“We fished in that river and that was our bathtub, but we had to walk seven or eight miles to get there,” he said. “That’s why I’m happy the Lord can use me. I’m just a run-of-the-mill guy.”

In 1960, Johnson moved to Waco and began working for Womack Electric, where he learned the trade from the late James Gronski. He heard about Habitat for Humanity in 1986 when the organization started in Waco and its regional director, Joe Gatlin, spoke at Calvary Baptist Church, which Johnson attended at the time.

“I prayed about it that night, and the next day I asked Joe if I could work on the second house,” Johnson said. “I didn’t ask about the first one because I figured they already had someone, but he asked me, ‘Why not work with us on the first house?’ Turns out they didn’t have anybody on that first house after all.”

Johnson wired that first house for electricity, and it was dedicated in July 1987.

“We used to build a house in a week and have the air conditioner running by 4:30 p.m. Friday,” he said. “But things have changed, designs have changed, and now it’s hard to build one in a week.”

Johnson continued to wire about 25 more houses by himself. Then he had help from other volunteer electricians.

“Earl Perryman worked on 25 to 30 houses with me,” Johnson said. “I also did 25 to 30 houses with Sam Braun. I want to thank everyone I’ve worked with for helping, but those two in particular I’d like to thank.”

While the work was hard, Johnson said he continued with Habitat for Humanity because he “liked giving someone a better life.” He also has done electrical work for Gospel Café, World Hunger Relief International, Community Baptist Church and Calvary Baptist Church.

Johnson took a break from his volunteer work when President Bush visited a Waco Habitat for Humanity build site in 2001.

“I got a picture with the president and had him sign it for my two grandsons,” he said. “Then I went over to his wife and asked her to sign it. But she said she’d go ahead and sign it for both of them because you could read her writing but you can’t read his.”

Johnson, who lives in Hewitt with his wife, Wilma, said his four grandsons have helped him build houses.

“My son, Jim Johnson, has helped on this [100th] house and started helping me with them 15 to 20 years ago,” Johnson said. “But it’s just not my wife’s cup of tea – she’s a city girl.”

The house that Johnson currently is wiring is the 106th house for Waco Habitat for Humanity. Johnson said he has not worked on all of them because contractors were hired for some houses.

Construction at the house, at 1801 Seneca Ave., began June 8 and will continue through Saturday, said Emily Fau, development director for Waco Habitat for Humanity. A dedication ceremony with the home’s future owners should take place in July.

“Local businesses pitched in for this house,” Fau said. “The Waco Association of Realtors gave a lead gift of $5,000. Studio Gallery had an art show and raised $15,000.”

Last year, Johnson received a Jefferson Award in recognition of his service as an “unsung hero” at a ceremony in the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station. This national award system honors community and public service in the United States.

“That Jefferson Award really shook me up a bit,” Johnson said. “I don’t feel like you should be recognized for service to the Lord. It’s an honor and a privilege to serve the Lord. People don’t really like that word, servant, but that’s what I am.”

Despite the recognition, Johnson said he would rather not be in the spotlight.

“The only reason I’m doing this story is so somebody might read it and be encouraged to do something,” Johnson said. “Somebody might read this and think, ‘Well, if he can do 100 houses, I can do 107.’ ”