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Retired group of Columbia men build homes for Habitat for Humanity

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 | 6:12 p.m. CDT; updated 11:00 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Ross Swofford takes a break in front of the Habitat for Humanity house he is helping to build for Chris Ruff, a war veteran. Swofford is a member of the "Day Crew," a group of 17 men who regularly volunteer for Habitat and have built the majority of Habitat homes in Columbia.

COLUMBIA — North of Business Loop 70 on the corner of Proctor Drive and North Creasy Springs Road, where there once was an empty plot of land, there is now a house only weeks away from becoming a home for Najla Mehmedovic.

On Friday, four purple, red and green birthday balloons sprinkled with  sawdust were tied to a sawhorse next to the house. They marked an impromptu 85th birthday party for Ross Swofford, whose attention that morning was concentrated solely on making the perfect cut to a piece of siding laid before him. 

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“I’d like to see how you’re gonna make that angle right there,” said Larry Hogan, watching intently.

 “Oh, you just watch me,” Swofford replied, and moments later, as promised, the angle was cut. Hogan walked away with the siding. Another layer of sawdust fell on the balloons.

Swofford and Hogan are just two of the 17 men who have helped Habitat for Humanity build roughly 75 percent of its homes in Columbia since 1991. Every one of the men is retired, in the "golden years" sometimes thought of as a time for doing less.

“I’m the old-timer on the crew,” Swofford said, laying down his circular saw with a boyish grin belying the milestone he just passed. Swofford was one of the earliest members of the "Day Crew," as they call themselves, and that day — his birthday — he spent working alongside some of these same men.

When Swofford talks about the camaraderie of the group, his smile seems etched in stone. “We’ve been working together almost 17 years, and we give each other a lot of you-know-what,” he said.

Erv Murtzlufft, the crew leader, chimed in: “Nobody here has ever won an argument.” 

Swofford’s smile widened. “I’ve tried to straighten Erv out," he said, before Murtzluff cut him short: “Know what, Ross, I’ve given up on you.” 

Band of brothers

“It’s so much fun with these guys, ya know?" Murtzlufft said. "Some old guys like us go to McDonald's every day and spend the morning drinking coffee, whereas we come out here and do a little something, and the camaraderie’s good, and we just have a good time.”

Murtzlufft is “the heart and soul of everything,” said Bob Lawrence, a contracted plumber who has worked with the day crew for the past 10 years.

“Those guys are a godsend,” said Bill View, executive director of Habitat in Columbia. “We build eight to ten houses a year, and they build six to eight of them for us.”

View is no stranger to charitable work. He started his current position at Habitat the day after his retirement from the Boone County school system, where in addition to his 10 years as superintendent, he found time to work as a volunteer county coordinator for The Salvation Army.

 “They’re just like a good ol’ boys club, like a fraternity," View said. "They’re close-knit, they hang together, they harass each other endlessly. They’re hard on each other, but they love each other to death."

"The ones that have been here more than four or five years,” View said, pausing to think, “I’d say their bond is like brothers.”

They are an important band of brothers for this particular nonprofit arm of Habitat for Humanity, a global organization that, according to its website, has helped build more than 350,000 homes around the world since 1976. Since its formation in Columbia almost 20 years ago, the local chapter of Habitat has built nearly 100 homes for people who need them.

A better life

Najla Mehmedovic was one of those people. Since moving to the U.S. from Serbia more than seven years ago, the single mother has been unable to afford a house for her and her daughter. In broken English and with a gracious smile, she praised Habitat. 

“Habitat helped, and thank you very much,” Mehmedovic said, pausing from her "sweat equity" work — cleaning another Habitat site just a few hundred feet from her own. It's a house under construction for Chris Ruff, a 24-year-old veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ruff, a Columbia native, applied for the house through a joint collaboration between the VA Mortgage Center and Habitat for Humanity after his father-in-law heard the two organizations were looking for a veteran in need of a home.

“I’ve learned a lot," Ruff said. "It’s interesting to see the house go up from nothing and build the walls and do the roof and do everything bit by bit. I feel really good about what’s going on.” 

Ruff had been working alongside Hogan for the day, learning how to install siding on his future home.

“They accepted me when I didn’t even know how to swing a hammer,” Ruff said.

'A Right Thing'

On-the-job training isn’t restricted to the homeowners, either. Both Frank Rezabek, 58, and John Igelheart, 62, have been with the Day Crew for about a year and have learned from veteran Day Crew members every day since.

“I knew a little bit about wiring, a little bit about plumbing, a little bit about this and that, but I’m learning a lot more,” Igelheart said.

“When I told Erv I was gonna work for him, I asked him what I should bring, and he told me a hammer, and my wife says, 'You don’t want to put a hammer in Frank’s hands,' " Rezabek said with a chuckle. “But you learn. It’s on-the-job training.” 

Retired after 35 years with Caterpillar Inc., Rezabek “felt it was time to give back,” a prevalent ideology found within most of the Day Crew.

“It’s about helping people who need help,” said Al Viola, peeling off his mud-caked work boots. Viola retired from his job as a science teacher in Troy, N.Y., in 1990, and made his way to Columbia to be closer to his daughter and grandchildren. He found himself working alongside Murtzlufft the following year when they built their first house together on McBaine Avenue. 

He hasn’t stopped since.

“Ben Franklin said a good deed is the best service,” Viola said as he laced up a clean pair of sneakers for his ride home.

Back at the work site and soaked in sweat, the self-described “handyman” Hans Scherer, speaking with a German accent, summed it up this way: “You must believe it’s important. You must have people like us in the world. It’s a better life. It’s a right thing.”

Built to last

Over soda and cookies, the crew broke for lunch, and the conversations went in many directions.

Igelheart pointed to a scar on his leg. “One application of a chainsaw does that," he said. "It’s a good reminder.”

Scherer and Murtzlufft joked with Vogel about missing work on Friday. “We had the steaks, red wine, the beers. Dancing with the topless woman here on the streets,” Scherer said.

Swofford brought up the awful tomato season, and there were nods of agreement.

The exact history of this crew is lost in a jumble of dates and foggy            remembrances, and the question of its inception almost always prompts an argument.

“I started in ’93, working in that mud, building out of that channel. …”

“Well, Al and I started before that!”

“Well, I did too!”

But off to the side, finishing his cookie, Viola stood alone, staring at the empty plot of land neighboring Mehmedovic's future home.

“That’s a nice flat piece of ground there for building,” Viola muttered, to no one in particular.


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