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Monk turned carpenter: Man builds homes for less fortunate

By RACHEL KUBIK
Racine Journal Times

RACINE, Wis. (AP) — Tedd Swartz doesn’t own a TV and hasn’t for 10 years. He considers watching television a “time waster.”

“I threw it out the front door,” he said. “I had enough of it.”

He would much rather read the classics, or books about philosophy and other “obscure topics” he said, such as math, physics or psychology, geopolitics or cymatics, the study of visible sound and vibration.

He has a large collection of dictionaries, of which he said he couldn’t estimate how many volumes are included.

“I have thousands of books. I have shelves everywhere,” he said.

The two pieces of technology he won’t refuse to own, however, are a computer and a smartphone. He once tried getting rid of his smartphone. His resolution lasted about three weeks before he was told he needed the phone for his job.

“Gotta have those two because you can’t function in today’s world without them,” he said.

His job is now full-time construction leader at Racine Habitat for Humanity, where he’s worked for the past 10 years, helping it reach the milestone of completing its 100th home earlier this year, the Racine Journal Times reported. He works six days a week, Monday through Saturday.

His path to where he is now has been an unusual one, taken him from being a professional server to a Zen monk to a carpenter.

Swartz, 50, moved to West Racine in 2008, when the economic recession hit. Before that, Swartz was raised in Detroit. He went to St. Lawrence Seminary High School, in Mount Calvary in Fond du Lac County, for two years in the hopes of becoming a Catholic priest.

There, he met a monk. After that meeting, he never looked back at the priesthood.

He was an acolyte monk for three and a half years and lived in a temple. He became a Zen monk, practicing meditation.

Zen is a division of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in China during the Tang dynasty.

“I don’t know much about Buddhism; I know a lot about Zen, even though I was a quote-unquote Buddhist monk,” he said. “It was a different way of living, to say the least. It was definitely not American.”

He spent a lot of time doing outreach. He taught yoga and meditation in the temple where he lived.

He never graduated from St. Lawrence — dropping out either in 1986 or 1987, he said — and got a GED. He started attending Oakland Community College in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, then jumped to Wayne State University in Detroit and started studying medicine.

“I really liked science,” Swartz said. “I still do.”

Next, he bounced back to Oakland Community College and started studying photography. He was a sculptor and self-described “maker” in Detroit, involved in the larger arts scene. But photography wasn’t a field he ever worked in.

He took his first photography class “just to take a class.” He dropped out of Oakland Community College and continued working in restaurants.

He then went to school for four years to become a carpenter and took part in an apprenticeship for five years. For three of those five, he built homes. He worked as a production framer, building large structures such as apartment complexes. The latter two years he was in the display field, working at shows and installing permanent museum fixtures.

“It was fun,” Swartz said. “I’m just really good with my hands.”

Now, he continues to make and repair things. “There’s nothing I can’t fix,” he said.

“I’m pretty eclectic,” he said.

Habitat Executive Director Grant Buenger said the word fits.

“He has a very diverse set of skills, training and experience,” Buenger said in an email.

Swartz said one appealing part of his job is the opportunity it gives him to meet many different people.

“We’ve got a lot of engineers and scientists that are retired that are just brilliant,” Swartz said. “A lot of times, a guy like me, a carpenter, doesn’t get the opportunity to interact in an intimate setting with the people of that caliber, that intelligence.”

Buenger said Swartz can talk about almost anything with anyone. “He is just as comfortable speaking with pastors or scientists as he is with fellow tradesmen.”

Swartz doesn’t typically swing hammers. But he gets materials together and supports volunteers, making sure they’re safe and on schedule, Swartz said.

“You get to see a family change the course of their life,” he said of why he likes his job. “Homeownership is a foundational element in getting out of poverty. That’s really awesome to be involved with, because it matters.”

He said he’s happy to be a part of Habitat.

“One of the best things humans can do together is eat; and the other thing is worship, or come together under a common goal,” he said. “I’ve learned more in 10 years about human relation than I have anywhere else. It’s been an incredible learning experience.”

Buenger said one of Swartz’s greatest strengths is “his ability to connect with and teach those who volunteer with us. He makes everyone feel comfortable with the task at hand and gives them the confidence to complete it.”

“I am thankful to have Tedd on our staff team,” Buenger said. “I especially appreciate his intentionality with and care for our partner families and volunteers. They enjoy working alongside him.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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