Newark's Mr. Willie builds homes that improves lives

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on May 20, 2016

On Hawthorne Avenue in Newark, it's 8 a.m. and Willie Clark is preparing for the day at a Habitat for Humanity construction site.

He has taken out several ladders, propping them up against the tool shed. The safety goggles and work gloves are in a crate on a wooden table for volunteer employees from Automatic Data Processing (ADP), a Roseland based company that provides payroll services.

"Heads up,'' Clark said, calling for the group to gather around.

He's wearing his trademark white hard hat. Written on the front of it, in black Magic Marker, is "Mr. Willie,'' the name everybody calls him.  I will, too, for the rest of this story about the 83-year-old carpenter from East Orange.

"EIGHTY-THREE!"

The chorus of surprise is from the ADP workers when Mr. Willie drops this fact on them. It comes out when he's explaining how his aging, soft-spoken voice used to be stronger when he was in the Army during the Korean War.

Mr. Willie, however, still commands attention, instructing the workers on how to be safe when they split up to install insulation at one of the three-family houses.

He's not fazed by the reaction to his age anymore, because it's happened many times in the 17 years that he's helped Habitat build some 80 homes in Newark, Irvington and West Orange.

They (people) think I should be somewhere on a beach,'' he said.

Not Mr. Willie.  He's not thinking about retirement.

"You die quick that way,'' he said.

Mr. Willie has too much work to do. Always has. Before joining Habitat, he had his own contracting business for 35 years in New Jersey.

When he shut down the company, supposedly to retire, Mr. Willie kept right on working. He latched on to Habitat as a subcontractor to help out the organization, which needed help building homes.

It's not like he needed the money when Habitat hired him permanently.

"I'm doing something for the people,'' Mr. Willie said. "I'm doing something for the families.''

The satisfaction doesn't get old for Mr. Willie, either, when the houses are completed and he has taught families how to build them the right way. Habitat calls it sweat equity for potential homeowners, who have to help in the actual construction of their home.

Mr. Willie can't help but get emotional seeing folks move in with the kids running around, giggling about their new bedroom.

"It just makes me cry,'' he said.

When the tears dry, Mr. Willie is off to the next home to do it all over again with the same passion as if he were moving in.

But he doesn't forget the families he's helped, making sure to stay in touch to see how they are doing.

"He calls us all the time asking us about the house,'' said Angela Amoatey of Irvington.

She and her husband, Patrick, moved into their home two years ago with their two children and they'll never forget Mr. Willie.

"If Mr. Willie didn't have a place to stay, he can have one of my rooms,'' she said.  

And some dinner, too, if they can ever get him to pause for a meal to thank him for everything he's done.

That's Mr. Willie, always working. It's been this way ever since he left Gaffney, S.C., at 14 years old, headed this way with his sister to live with an older sister in Newark.

As one of 10 siblings, Mr. Willie said, he's had every job that you can think of in his life. He made cheese and worked in a bakery. He repaired machinery at a copper company and was a short order cook at a Newark restaurant. At one point, he was a welder at a shipping yard and sold vegetables and other wares from a horse-drawn wagon that he rented.

He didn't have time to waste. Mr. Willie, who has been married for 38 years, had three sons and a daughter to raise.

When it's time to work, Mr. Willie is the first one at the Newark site, unlocking the gate to the homes on Hawthorne Avenue as early as 7 a.m. And he never stops moving, walking up and down stairs of a three story framed house, checking and inspecting every body's work.

"They don't make them (Mr. Willie) like they used to,''said Jeff Farrell, chief executive officer of Habitat. "He's running circles around people half his age.''

There are so many places where people can begin when talking about what Mr. Willie brings to the table. He's patient. He has the right temperament, a calmness that puts people at ease.

Donna Payne, an ADP employee, feels it. Her uncle died recently, and she says Mr. Willie reminds her of him – how he's teaching, giving orders without making you feel bad if you make a mistake.

"He's got a ton of wisdom to offer,'' said Eric Nellessen, her colleague.

And that wisdom matches the deep Christian faith Mr. Willie wakes up to every morning. He always starts his day in prayer, reading a scripture.

One of his favorites is from Isaiah, Chapter 53. The last line in verse five says, "and with his stripes we are healed.''

Mr. Willie has to believe it.

Sixteen years ago, he said doctors told him he had cancer and six months to live.

"I told them I don't have no cancer,'' Mr. Willie said.

He doesn't. He has a will to live and he shows no sign of slowing down.

"It's not my time to stop,'' he said. "Not yet.''

Press on, Mr. Willie. Keep building those houses.

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