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A North Carolinian in charge at Habitat

By D. G. Martin
Posted Sunday, February 6, 2005

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Last week, thousands of North Carolina volunteers for Habitat for Humanity were shocked to learn that its international board had dismissed its charismatic founder and long time leader, Millard Fuller.

In this stressful time, Habitat is fortunate to have a North Carolinian to serve as its leader until a successor for Fuller is identified.

Davidson resident Paul Leonard is Habitat's interim CEO, living temporarily and working at Habitat's headquarters in Americus, Georgia.

Several years ago, I wrote an article about my college classmate and longtime friend for "Our State Magazine." Here is some of what I wrote then:

Just like his namesake, St. Paul, Leonard has been both a preacher and a "tentmaker."

Leonard's North Carolina friends say that his background is perfect preparation to lead Habitat's ministry of building homes. They point out that he has been a successful ordained minister and an admired leader in the business of homebuilding. Just like his namesake, St. Paul, Leonard has been both a preacher and a "tentmaker."

His friends will also tell you that Paul Leonard brings much more than a good resume to the Habitat challenge. Charlotte businessman Ned Davis first got to know him in the late 1960's at his church, Trinity Presbyterian in Charlotte, when Leonard became an associate minister. Asked about the secret of Leonard's success, Davis shook his head and said, "Part of it is he is the world's best negotiator and mediator. He can get solutions from very diverse groups. He just hangs in there. But he has such a keen intellect, and he is always looking for how to make the right thing happen."

By 1968, Leonard was leading a new church, the Church in the City. Worried about the lack of adequate housing for low or moderate-income people, its members formed a partnership with two other local church groups to acquire and develop land and build houses.

Leonard took charge of the project. The subdivision, development, and home-building process is so full of details and traps that it almost always defeats the inexperienced. But Leonard mastered the details. He also had the personal qualities to deal with landowners, contractors, lenders, government officials, and prospective purchasers. Their subdivision turned out to be a great success. Soon, Leonard took on other projects-rehabilitating homes, acquiring vacant lots in blighted urban neighborhoods, building low-cost higher-quality homes, and helping to find the financing for them.

His talents as a developer eventually came to the attention of John Crosland, Jr., who ran one of the nation's largest development and home-building companies.

"My major worry about Paul, coming from the non-profit field," Crosland says, "was whether or not he would have the entrepreneurial spirit that is so necessary in our business. But he sure proved that he had a good business head. Pretty soon, he was running our multifamily division and he just took on more and more responsibility."

When Crosland sold the homebuilding business to Centex Homes, he says, "They wanted Paul to run the operation and pretty soon he was running their entire Southeast division."

I asked Crosland what was the secret of Leonard's success. He responded, "Vision, good strategist, a clear thinker. Paul worked well with people, he won their confidence and, of course, he is smart as a whip."

Crosland remains an admirer. In fact, when Leonard retired from Centex, Crosland persuaded him to become an "outside" director of his company.

Leonard's closest associate in his Habitat work is his wife Judy.

Ned Davis' wife, Adelaide puts it this way. "You have to remember that Judy Leonard is more than just a helpmate. She is an active participant in his work. She has been working at Habitat on the roofs of houses and in the Habitat store all the while that Paul has been traveling across the world, working on Habitat's business problems."

John Kuykendall, former president of Davidson College and one of the Leonard 's' oldest friends, says, "I have seen Paul and Judy give Habitat dinners where the wealthiest financial supporters of Habitat mingled with new Habitat homeowners who didn't have an extra penny. And Judy was the mother and best friend of all them."

Considering his great gifts and his successes as minister, a businessman, and international volunteer leader, why is Leonard not better known in state where he has lived for most of the past forty years?

Maybe John Kuykendall has the best answer. "Paul is quiet, unassuming, modest, low-profile and never tooted his own horn."

Kuykendall says that even after years of friendship he finds himself amazed at Leonard's great charisma. "He gave the local Habitat chapter a speech recently that was so spellbinding that you wanted to write your check quickly before it was too late. He is very soft-spoken. But his conviction and integrity come through so clearly that his quiet presence becomes very powerful."

Habitat is fortunate to have that kind of leader and North Carolinians can be proud.


D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409 or He is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week's (February 6) has been preempted by other programming.

Programs coming up:

February 13: Sheila Kay Adams, My Old True Love

February 20-March 20 North Carolina Bookwatch preempted by programming associated with Festival, the annual fundraising campaign.

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A North Carolinian in charge at Habitat
Paul Leonard

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