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Retired builder devotes his time to Habitat for Humanity

Tom O'Connell could use some help.

When St. Croix Valley Habitat for Humanity finally recruited the retired River Falls contractor to be the organization's construction chairman, he thought it was a part-time position.

Two years later, he's working nearly full-time at the volunteer job.

This Tom O'Connell - not to be confused with the Hudson funeral home director with the same name - is from River Falls. He has ties to Hudson, however. Three of his seven children (Barb Suvanto, Ralph O'Connell and Cheryl McCarten) live here, along with a sister (Margaret "Peggy" Kinney) and a brother (Mike O'Connell), plus grandchildren, nephews and nieces.

Besides serving as the local Habitat for Humanity chapter's construction expert, O'Connell is site supervisor for the organization's first house-building project in Hudson. He can be found almost daily at the modest single-family house going up on the corner of Amherst Circle and Bridgewater Trail in the Lighthouse at Hudson Pier development.

The gentle, barrel of a man supervises the volunteers that show up to help construct the house - playing teacher as much as boss for the novices.

"It's becoming a full-time job. I need some help up here if we continue to build in Hudson," O'Connell said.

He is looking for someone to supervise construction of the next Habitat house in the Lighthouse development. Habitat for Humanity plans to build a total of seven homes on lots that Lighthouse developer John Arkell has donated to the ecumenical Christian housing ministry.

"Nobody's really stepped forward and said I'll take charge of the next house," O'Connell said. "I'd love it if somebody who's a good builder, and knows how to plan and lay out and lead the charge, would come along."

It would be ideal if someone like O'Connell stepped forward, but the next site supervisor doesn't need his credentials.

In his younger days, O'Connell owned a general contracting company that employed roughly 15 carpenters and masons. The company was successful enough for O'Connell to retire the first time at age 50.

After growing restless in retirement, he bought Cliff's Fix It Shop in River Falls. He repaired sewing machines and vacuum cleaners at the shop and his wife, Rose Marie, did seamstress work.

Rose Marie died in 1991 and he sold the repair shop a few years later, thinking he had retired for good this time.

The leaders of St. Croix Valley Habitat for Humanity had other ideas, however.

"The minute I sold Cliff's Fix It, they were pounding on my door," O'Connell recalled. "I finally told them, yeah, OK, I would come. So I've been at it ever since then."

Supervising volunteers requires more patience than bossing employees, he said. When he was running his construction company, if a worker made too many mistakes, he could send him down the road.

"But you can't do that with volunteers. You just smile and help them out as much as you can."

He added that Habitat volunteers are "great" people.

"They want to do their best to help others," he said.

"It's very satisfying. It really is," he said of the work. "I enjoyed construction. I'm doing now what I enjoyed doing so much when I was younger."

The project has had its frustrations, however.

Work was supposed to start in early June, but was delayed until August after subcontractors that were expected to donate their time to pour the concrete and install the plumbing didn't come through.

Roger and Rick Evenson of Evenson Plumbing ultimately got the project rolling by putting in the plumbing. They'll also install the heating system and electrical wiring once the house is sided and the shingles are on the roof.

The construction delay required rescheduling groups and individuals that had volunteered to work on the house. Unfortunately, volunteers planning to work in June and July weren't always available later on.

"You get appreciation, but you also catch a little hell," O'Connell said of his leadership role in the project.

As of Monday, the exterior walls and windows of the house were in place, capped by trusses and roof boards.

Andersen Corp. of Bayport, Minn., donated the windows and provided a crew of workers to set them on Wednesday of last week. A dozen Andersen employees also volunteered their time Monday of last week.

"And boy they were enthusiastic and worked like crazy and got a lot of stuff done," O'Connell said.

O'Connell was at the site Monday afternoon measuring for exterior doors that he planned to purchase.

"By Wednesday night, we should have this place fairly well buttoned up," he said.

He said volunteers are in the process of putting in the studs for the second-floor walls. The studs for the first-floor interior walls are already in place.

Volunteers are scheduled to put the siding on next.

O'Connell has been waiting more than two weeks for a subcontractor to arrive to nail the shingles to the roof. Volunteers weren't permitted to do the roofing because the pitch is steeper than normal on Habitat houses. The developer required the steeper pitch so the Habitat houses would match other residences in the neighborhood.

Down the line, volunteers will be needed to insulate the house, hang and tape Sheetrock, do trim work, install cabinets and lay vinyl floors.

"Our goal right now is to have the house ready by Christmas," O'Connell said. "I'm not sure we're going to make it, but we're going to try."

Raheem Battah, his wife, Menal Al-Abood, and their four children will move into the house when it is completed. The Hudson family immigrated to the United States from Jordan a couple of years ago.

The family will buy the house with a no-interest mortgage that covers Habitat's construction costs. The future owners are required to help build the house, putting in what Habitat calls "sweat equity."

O'Connell said Battah and Al-Abood have exceeded expectations when it comes to the sweat equity they've put into the house.

Battah has worked two jobs recently, but still finds time to assist with construction of his home.

"If he's got two hours between jobs, he'll come out and work for an hour and then go to his second job," O'Connell said. Al-Abood also finds time to help between caring for their children - ages 9, 7, 6 and 4, he said.

"They're just a nice family," said O'Connell, who along with Habitat volunteer coordinator Kathy Windolff has shared a Jordanian-style dinner with the Battahs at their apartment.

No government funds are used for the construction of Habitat houses, although government entities are encouraged to donate things such as land, utilities, streets, permit fees and assessments to keep building costs low.

During the warm weather months, volunteers typically work on Habitat houses Wednesday afternoons and evenings, plus Saturdays.

To volunteer to lend a hand on the Battahs' home, contact Kathy Windolff through the St. Croix Valley Habitat for Humanity office at River Falls. The telephone number is (715) 425-5623 and the e-mail address is

You can learn more about the local Habitat for Humanity chapter by going to its Web site at

Donations of money are also needed to buy building materials, property, tools and professional services. They can be sent to St. Croix Valley Habitat for Humanity, PO Box 104, River Falls, WI 54022.

Randy Hanson can be reached at

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

(715) 426-1066