Never too old to help

The Geezer Gang has built 90 homes for those in need

Amy Wilson / The Orange County Register /

Published Oct 4, 2013 at 05:00AM

There’s not a single old guy here.

There’s a 75-year-old guy, check. And, OK, on second run through the people on ladders this particular Wednesday, there’s another 75-year-old guy, too.

A few of the sweaty men with tool bags slung on their hips hover around 67.

But after the guys mentioned above, the construction crew starts looking downright middle-aged. Like 65.

But, no — no old guys.

Yet, this is the self-named Geezer Gang, a club for whom membership is decidedly fluid and whose requirements seem to be this: You have to sincerely want to contribute, you have to show up when you say you will and you better give as good as you dish out — camaraderie and wisecrack-wise — when the hammers swing.

And, man, do the hammers swing.

So far, since the Geezers Gang’s hammers got swinging in 2000, they’ve built 90 houses.

They don’t live in any of them.

Penance for an IRS career

Growing up amid the housing boom in Hastings Ranch in Pasadena, Calif., 64-year-old Jerome Blackman thought construction sites were his personal jungle gyms. The collected treasure of his youth, he says, were bits of trash the kids could find left behind on worksites.

“I’m sure the developers hated us,” the longtime IRS agent says, “all those stakes marking the property lines with those plastic tapes on them — they made great swords.”

It is only natural, he says, that today, after 32 years working behind a desk, he has returned to his first playground. Blackman is in his 16th year of building houses for Habitat for Humanity of Orange County, Calif. As he speaks, the Costa Mesa, Calif., man is installing the fire sprinkler system for which he is certified, and the Geezers around him all chime in that he’s doing penance for his IRS life.

So this is Geezer life. Come to a job that pays you nothing, swelter in the summer, freeze in the winter, take unrelenting grief.

Nobody’s got an end date.

An expression of gratitude

The Geezer Gang was named for a Newport Beach, Calif., restaurant, since closed, where the idea to group up was hatched. That was 13 years ago at Geezer’s Garlic Grill. The extent of organization of the bunch is that they have a newsletter that goes out to about 100 folks, though the occasionals number in around 50 and the regulars at about 20.

Only about five or so show up for a monthly lunch to talk shop. Some of the regulars, like Blackman, have never made the lunch.

You can see how organized this is.

What it is, instead, is volunteer work for the extremely grateful who want to acknowledge it out loud.

Sometimes the sentiment is as quote-worthy as former aerospace engineer Kieran Bergin’s comment that: “It’s the rent I pay for the space I occupy on the planet.”

Or as sweet as Tom Vlahos’ thoughts: “I look at everything I have. I have a great life, a great family, a tremendous life. A house is not a house; it’s a home. I’ve always had one. It’s a gift to be doing this.”

Or as straightforward as that of Ken Crandall, a 70-year-old retired dentist from Anaheim Hills, Calif.: “It’s what you’re supposed to do. Volunteerism is a trait of those who have enough.”

The thing about volunteering — Crandall pauses as he points to all the fun and work being done around him on a three-bedroom house in Santa Ana, Calif.: “There are no jerks here. They stay home to be jerks.”

No jerks allowed

Proof of the no-jerks rule is abundant at the Geezer Build. Bergin, for example, sometimes works four or five days a week, installing, of all things, plumbing. Remember, this guy was an aerospace engineer.

He’s trying to explain that he was originally a chemical engineer, then an aerospace engineer who worked on waterflow systems, and how to handle dirty water in space. This is not so different.

Of course it’s not.

Need more no-jerks proof?

Back to Jerome Blackman, who can’t go the big ceremony where the Habitat house is dedicated and the keys handed over to the family because the kids he’s met while building the house usually talk about how proud they are of their parents bettering their lives, and how great it’s going to be to finally have their own bedroom.

He tears up.

Staying young

The Gang works weekdays, when most other O.C. Habitat volunteers cannot. The Geezers train college kids on spring break or corporate types who are taking special weeks to do pro bono work. They clean up sites that have been left by overzealous weekend crews. They also build whole houses almost by themselves.

But they were also volunteers in previous incarnations. Vlahos spent time with his church group, building homes in Mexico. Lawyer Jack Lucas had worked building houses in New Orleans for Habitat before he was Geezer material. And 67-year-old Jeff Ellerbrock, on site today, was recently honored by the California Senate as a Senior Making a Difference.

Then there’s Ken Lickel, the guy whirring the chainsaw in the blazing sun. Before he left his previous job, he decided he’d try out Habitat one day a week for a while.

He liked it so much, “I retired early to do what I wanted to do.”

They returned the favor. The former vice president and general manager of Alcon Laboratories in Irvine, Calif., is a crew leader with the Geezers, but he soon became a fundraiser for O.C. Habitat, then he found himself on its board of directors.

As a former chair of Orange County United Way, he put together the strengths of one organization with the other, finding himself now on the Governor’s Committee for Build United, a way for Habitat, working as a construction company, to shore up nonprofits with building needs.

Lickel knows that some people work their whole lives and don’t quit working because they have no idea what they will do when they stop.

“I wanted a different life,” Lickel says. “Some don’t stop until it’s too late to have that life.”

Not the Geezers.

It’s their version of staying young.