Moving America Forward

Meet John Fease. He’s Rebuilding a Downtrodden Texas Town, One House at a Time

February 12, 2014
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Meet John Fease. He’s Rebuilding a Downtrodden Texas Town, One House at a Time
John Fease at his home in Quinlan, in northeast Texas, on Feb. 10, 2014. Fease, 65, a former resort owner and pastor, retired three years ago, but has continued to ply his trade as a carpenter since then, often laboring for free or at reduced cost to help his neighbors in need. Gerry McCarthy for NationSwell
Fease's work trailer is a mobile workshop. It holds many of the tools and parts he needs to rebuild homes in Quinlan. Gerry McCarthy for NationSwell
Wisconsin license plates hang on a wall in Fease's workshop — a memory of home. Fease and his wife, Barbara, lived in northern Wisconsin before retiring to Texas to be nearer to their grandchildren. Gerry McCarthy for NationSwell
Fease runs a table saw in his Quinlan workshop. Gerry McCarthy for NationSwell
Fease has spent his retirement — and much of his savings — rebuilding Quinlan, one house at a time. Gerry McCarthy for NationSwell
Fease sweeps up after a productive day's work. Gerry McCarthy for NationSwell
The former pastor is spending his golden years — and his own retirement savings — helping to improve the lives of his neighbors in Quinlan, Texas.

Nestled against the western bank of Lake Tawakoni, some 40 miles east of Dallas, Quinlan, Texas, is the kind of rural town that survives only because its 1,394 residents have called it home so long that they refuse to leave. Jobs are found elsewhere, and those who are lucky enough to secure them join the chorus of migrants that set out each morning for manufacturing work in larger towns. “Quinlan has a reputation for being a downtrodden place,” says Rev. Lance Eiland, pastor of the Transformation Church of God in Quinlan.

Three years ago, the population of this tiny town grew by two: John Fease, the former owner of a wilderness resort in northern Wisconsin, retired and moved to Quinlan with his wife, Barbara. The plan was to relax and enjoy their new perch with a lake view, only an hour’s drive from their grandchildren. Instead, Fease began steadily transforming the community, one house at a time, by working as a full-time carpenter — and laboring for free.

Actually, he labored at a cost: He charged only those clients who could afford to pay, and foot the bill for those who couldn’t. In his first year in Quinlan, he burned through $100,000 of his own savings. Pastor Eiland’s home was the first to benefit from Fease’s handiwork. He converted the garage into a second bedroom and bathroom for the family of four, then retouched just about everything else he could get his hands on. There was a lot to be done — the house was falling into disrepair. “Much of our life is involved in other people’ s lives, so sometimes we let things go,” Eiland says.

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Through Fease’s work, the house evolved from a source of stress to a haven of relaxation. “Our home is a refuge,” says Eiland, but he says that Fease and his steadfast sidekick, Barbara, brought more than that. “The carpentry is huge, but when they’re in your house working, it’s just a positive experience overall.”

The waiting list for Fease’s services continues to grow. But now he does side gigs for profit in order to continue working for those who can’t afford much-needed renovations: additional bedrooms for growing families, remodeled kitchens, new flooring, central heating and cooling.

It’s difficult to gauge the impact of even the smallest improvements, Fease says. “It revolutionizes your life,” he says. “People live in stuff out here that I never could have imagined.”

Fease is 65 years old with a scruffy silver beard, gray-rimmed glasses and eyes like blueberries. Behind the wheel of his gold pickup, he begins a tour of Quinlan on Main Street, where dilapidated red brick buildings harbor stores like the Treasure Box and the Quinlan Saw Shop. Here, downtown, is the site of his latest project, a restorative quest that includes simple tasks like trimming the grass, stamping out weeds and converting a vacant lot into a park. His work is proving to be contagious: Fease excitedly points out improvements he had no part in, including a once ragged lot that’s now spick and span.

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He hangs a right and plunges into a neighborhood that he describes as “typical.” Rusted tractor parts are scattered across front laws, a sort of graveyard for farm equipment. An unpaved city street leads to a house — once vacant and stripped by vandals — that Fease remodeled for a young couple and their newborn baby. They asked for a few improvements in the kitchen. Fease did far more, installing new countertops and sinks in the kitchen and bathroom, repairing an uneven floor and a leaky roof and repainting several rooms. Yet that was only the beginning. He and Barbara worked there for a month.

Further along is Pastor Eiland’s house, and next door to that is Ludy Torres. Fease had heard of the dire conditions in Torres’ home as he was wrapping up work for Eiland. The entire structural base of the house was gone — rotten and eaten by termites — giving way to a dirt floor. Not only did Torres get a new floor, but she also received a revamped kitchen and bathroom, not to mention a new fence and storage unit. To make the house more wheelchair-accessible for Torres’ husband, Fease also widened the entryway and installed railings in the bathroom. “He’s good,” Torres says of Fease. “That’s all I can say. He’s good.”

Fease is driven in large part by his faith. In addition to running the wilderness resort near Rhinelander, Wis., he served as pastor for two churches before leaving the state, one of which he “grew” from 25 to 15 faithful congregants, he says with a wink and a grin. He subscribes to a brand of Christianity that places social justice at its center, a faith that compels hard work. He counts Martin Luther King Jr. as one of his heroes.

The topic of his faith excites Fease so much that he barely touches a plate of enchiladas during lunch. “People have to witness somehow the reality that less is more, that doing without for the benefit of someone else actually can be better than keeping it for yourself and buying more,” he says.

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Fease and his wife acknowledge that the path they’ve chosen is not without risk. “It’s an adventure,” Barbara says. “You really do have to sit down and think about the financial part of all this, but John does not want to stop what he’s doing.”

On the edge of town — at the end of a bumpy road flanked by thin forest where stray dogs patrol for scraps of food — is one of Fease’s most cherished projects. Here, Betty Mazariegos was asked to make a list of needed home renovations. “I did a big list,” she says, and then she prayed: “God, you know my list, but there’s so little I can do.”

At first, Fease promised her only new floors, but one thing led to another. “Every time I came home after work I was excited because there was always something new in the house,” says Mazariegos, who cleans homes for a living.

Fease recalls one day in particular: “She texted me because she was so excited that the TV worked and there was no cord across the front door.”

By the end of Fease’s stint in her home, Mazariegos’ life had changed in more ways than one. “You rarely see people that want to give,” she says. “Since they impacted my life that way, I do more.”

As a cold front moved in one evening, Mazariegos spotted a woman at the grocery store without a coat. Knowing that she had an extra coat at home, Mazariegos removed the one on her own back. “If I have more than what I need, I look around and I just give it,” she says.

It’s a characteristic that Fease admires.

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