By Leo Poindexter : Lincoln Journal Star
Annually, the Burnham Yates Citizenship Award is given by the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce to an individual for business or charitable contributions to the city of Lincoln, helping the city to grow and prosper. This year the award was given to an individual I have been wanting to meet for some time, primarily because of how his work helped my wife’s family.
Arrangements were made to meet with Rex and his wife Janet at their modest home on the SouthWest edge of Lincoln. I must admit that I didn’t realize this neighborhood even existed, an enclave of small acreages surrounded by trees.
My arrival found Rex in the garage working on his latest home project, an operational musical machine roughly based on the fantasy machines seen in the animations Animusic. He was working to get streams of marble sized plastic balls to shoot out of tubes and strike a metal pipe each of a different size, creating a sound not unlike a steel drum. A dozen or more balls missed their target and bounced off his spotless Ferrari. Rex laughed and explained, “I can get the balls to come out at the right speed and proper spacing, but once in a while a few extra pop out & you can’t have that in a well-practiced orchestra. It will probably take another set of sensors to track the balls in the launchers before I get it right.” I picked up some of the errant hard plastic balls. “They haven’t scratched the car yet. Can you imagine how awesome this will sound playing Rinsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee?”.
After a warm greeting by his wife Janet and more explanation of how this entertaining piece of equipment works (or should I say “will work”, Lord willing…) we moved to their back porch for the interview. “Back porch” is probably not appropriate, it is more of a piece of Heaven. The morning was just warming up and steam was beginning to rise from the damp stepping stones in the emerald green yard leading to the large fire pit surrounded by a semicircular waterfall. I had never heard a bluebird before, you don’t see them in the city. They have a wonderful, quiet song that will stay with me a long time. With a fresh pot of coffee and coffee cups hand-made by local artisans, we got started.
I asked Rex how it came to be that he was awarded the Burnham Yates Citizen Award, as generally this is bestowed upon someone who is a community leader or local business owner? “Well, I never was much of a business man, I would rather work in the trenches with the people or fiddle with equipment than sit in a boring meeting. But I did what I felt was a great job of leading a team, and consistently received top marks from them. I am proud of that. So after I figured out how to share my passion regarding my network marketing, and build a big team there, I was able to then use the income from that venture to develop the neighborhood which led to this award you are asking about.”
“You see, in about 1998 when Janet and I were preparing to build this house I was looking closely at houses all over Lincoln. During the late fall and winter I began paying attention to the roofs of houses because in the morning before the sun gets too high and there is still frost or a thin layer of snow on the roof, you can gauge how well insulated the home is. What struck me was that the worst insulated homes were always in the poorer neighborhoods, the people who can least afford to pay for heating. The utility bills for this house (waving at his home) here is a fraction of what a much smaller house would cost, and it is dramatically more comfortable! Not only are these people living in homes which are expensive to heat and cool, but their children are living in cold, drafty homes in the winter. It frustrated me.”
“As I began to transition what I learned from building this home to a smaller scale I discovered that the reason ‘lower cost’ housing is built that way is because builders are cutting every corner they can to be competitive in this market. They can’t sell a house for $5000 more just because they did $5000 of improvements, the people in this market have not been taught how to make those choices wisely. I figured if I could get one house built to high standards, at a competitive cost, and then use it to showcase what can be done I would be able to attract some investors & we could start building an integrated, energy efficient neighborhood of ‘affordable’ housing.”
“I ended up building a two unit townhome using some of the building techniques adapted from more expensive housing, rented half at a normal rental rate, and rented the other half at 10% of the going rate for one year with the stipulation that the tenants attended some training on financial responsibility to get them out of the predicament they were in. It turned out those first tenants were known by someone who is a local business owner, who wanted to meet me to understand what I was doing. He couldn’t understand why I was renting this new home for such a low amount of money. I had to explain that I had made a comittment years ago to provide some high-quality, affordable housing, and that I always keep my promises, at which point he got teary eyed. He spent the next two hours sharing how he had a similar dream as a young man, but his dreams always were put on the back burner, eventually forgotten.”
“That conversation has turned into a wonderful partnership. We have become best friends, brothers really, and we both work to implement our dreams which just happen to overlap in this area of providing nice homes for people that need them. The only reason I received this award is because of him, he convinced the board of the value this work is providing to the city. The recognition has sure made it easier to continue the work! We are even helping a team in Omaha to build homes based on our models, it is very rewarding to see others getting involved and the changes it makes in the life of a family.”
It seemed like we sat there in silence for 10 or 15 minutes, just soaking in the sounds of the morning, breathing air heavy with dew and the scents of wildflowers. Rex and his wife thanked me for the time and waved as I drove away, just like you would expect family to do.