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Retired builder still putting up houses - for free

July 05, 1999|By RICHARD F. BELISLE, Waynesboro

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - Harlan Bayer made his living building hundreds of houses over the last 40 years.

He's 77 now and retired, but he's still building houses. Now, however, he works for free.

Bayer, of Bayer Drive, a street in Waynesboro's east end named for the 55-home development he built there in the 1970s, has since 1990 been building houses around the world for Habitat for Humanity with former President Jimmy Carter.

Carter has been working for and promoting Habitat for Humanity since he left office. He is often photographed in work clothes wielding a hammer at a Habitat work site.

Bayer's job, since he knows so much about building, is supervising the crews of 20 volunteers who build each house, usually in about a week.

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"We call it blitz building," Bayer said. "The foundation and floor are finished when we start on Monday morning and by Friday we always have the house ready to live in."

Habitat for Humanity was organized in 1976. There are local chapters all over the country that raise money, building materials and free labor to build homes for poor people. The average Habitat-built home is about 1,200 square feet.

The organization holds an interest-free mortgage on the house and uses the proceeds from the payments to build more houses, Bayer said.

On Bayer's first trip in 1990 he was part of a crew of 2,000 volunteers who built 100 houses in a week in Tijuana, Mexico.

It was the first time he met Carter.

"We were sleeping in two-man tents," Bayer said. "Even Jimmy and his wife, Rosalynn, slept in tents. It was in the morning and I saw this man standing in front of a trash barrel filled with water. He was holding a Styrofoam cup in his hand and brushing his teeth. It was Carter."

The next year Bayer was on a crew that built 14 houses in Liberty City, Fla.

"That was a rough place. One day when we were working on a house, two guys drove by in cars and they were shooting at each other," Bayer said.

The third year, Betty went with him to Eagle Butte, S.D., where the volunteers built 27 houses on an Indian reservation.

Subsequent trips included the Watts area of Los Angeles, Budapest, Hungary, and Pikesville, Ky., where Betty said she got a hug from First Lady Hillary Clinton.

Last year it was Houston, Texas, where 100 homes were built. This spring Bayer saw Carter again, this time in the Philippines, where the volunteers built 280 "native-style" houses.

"We got to know some of the Secret Service agents that guarded the Carters," Betty Bayer said. "Sometimes they would recognize us and come over and greet us."

"Carter always seemed to ignore them, but they were never very far away from him," Bayer said. "You could always tell who they were."

Some of the agents turned up in Betty's photo albums of Habitat trips.

Bayer, like other volunteers, pays his own travel expenses plus room and board on Habitat trips.

He said he doesn't mind.

"I'd rather be on the giving than the receiving end," he said. "I've been successful enough in my own life so I can afford it. It also lets me keep my hand in my old trade."

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