Habitat for Humanity Founder Built His Dreams, Others' Homes

Millard Fuller, left, looks on as Dean Faircloth works on the wiring at the Americus, Ga., headquarters of the Fuller Center for Housing in 2005.
Millard Fuller, left, looks on as Dean Faircloth works on the wiring at the Americus, Ga., headquarters of the Fuller Center for Housing in 2005. (By Ric Feld -- Associated Press)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Millard Fuller, 74, a self-made millionaire who gave away his wealth to start the Christian house-building group Habitat for Humanity and who later started a similar organization after he was fired over disputes with the Habitat board, died Feb. 3 en route to a hospital in Albany, Ga.

An autopsy is being performed today to determine the cause of death.

Habitat for Humanity, founded in 1976 and based in Americus, Ga., built more than 175,000 houses in 100 countries under Mr. Fuller's leadership and attracted prominent volunteers, including former president Jimmy Carter. The Fuller Center for Housing, founded in 2005, raises money for Habitat affiliates.

Hundreds of thousands of families who lived in substandard housing and who did not earn enough to buy a home through conventional channels benefited from Habitat's policy of no-interest mortgages. Would-be homeowners had to make a small down payment and spend a certain number of hours building their home along with volunteers.

In a statement Tuesday, Carter called Mr. Fuller "one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known."

"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. "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."

In 1996, Mr. Fuller received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor. In 2005, he and his wife, Linda, who co-founded Habitat, were honored by former president George H.W. Bush and the Points of Light Foundation with a bronze medallion embedded in the Extra Mile volunteer pathway in Washington.

Mr. Fuller's legacy was tainted in early 2005 when a former employee said he sexually harassed her, about 15 years after at least five other former employees made similar claims. Mr. Fuller denied the allegations, and the Habitat board of directors said it could not substantiate the charges. Nonetheless, he was fired.

Mr. Fuller attributed his ousting to his continuous efforts to expand the organization's operations. He started a new group called "Building Habitat" until the Habitat for Humanity board filed suit. It became the Fuller Center for Housing.

Millard Fuller was born in Lanett, Ala., on Jan. 3, 1935, to a farming family. He graduated from Auburn University in 1957 and enrolled in law school at the University of Alabama.

He and a fellow law student, Morris S. Dees Jr., later the co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., started a direct-mail business with the simple mission to "get rich," Mr. Fuller said.

"We launched into a whole lot of business ventures -- almost all of which worked," he told the NonProfit Times. They sold 20 train carloads of tractor cushions in three months through Future Farmers of America. They sold rat poison, candy and toothbrushes, and "all of it just made money," Mr. Fuller said.

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