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‘Mr. Habitat’ continues building more than homes

POSTED: November 25, 2013 8:41 p.m.
Photo by Paul Floeckher/

At Habitat for Humanity of Effingham County’s second annual military ball, resource director George Groce presents a plaque to founder Morris Oglesby honoring him for “a lifetime of dedicated service to his Lord, his nation and the families of Effingham County.”

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Still going strong at 90 years old, Morris Oglesby insists on keeping himself busy.


Even when Habitat for Humanity of Effingham County recognized him with a lifetime achievement award at its second annual military ball, he had a hard time sitting still.


After four people took the podium to laud him, Oglesby couldn’t wait any longer to share what was on his mind — and in his heart.


“I need to say something,” Oglesby chimed in before the next speaker could be called forth.


“You want to say it now?” asked emcee George Groce, the resource director for Habitat for Humanity of Effingham County, which Oglesby founded in 1996.


“Yeah,” Oglesby replied in a good-natured, “of course I do” tone, rising from his chair as the audience laughed at his typical take-charge approach.


Oglesby bypassed the microphone at the podium — “I don’t need that,” he said — and spoke up-close to the audience at the New Ebenezer Retreat Center, which seemed fitting for someone who so often reaches out to people in the community.


He thanked everyone for their involvement in Habitat for Humanity, especially those who got the Effingham chapter off the ground.


“Everybody’s done real good since we started,” Oglesby said. “Y’all have been a blessing to me, and I just want to tell you how much you mean to my family and to my life.”


Habitat for Humanity relies heavily on volunteer workers in its mission to eliminate sub-standard housing. Habitat has built 16 houses in Effingham County and renovated several more through its critical home repair program.


Habitat of Effingham last dedicated a house in September 2012, as donations from the community declined in tough economic times. But Oglesby remains undeterred.


“I’m looking real forward to the new year of Habitat,” he said. “We’re gonna build three houses next year!”


For the people in the room that night who know Oglesby well, that optimism was typical — as was his way of deflecting the spotlight from himself in favor of others who support Habitat and benefit from it.


“Habitat is a big family,” he said.


Growing up faithful
Morris Oglesby knows something about being part of a big family — he was one of 13 children born to R.L. and Eva Oglesby.


“I came up in a big family, and I came up having to work,” he said. “We had to make a living. There wasn’t any money.”


Times became even tougher when Oglesby was just 6 years old, and his father died. Oglesby quit school at a young age so he and his older brothers could help their mother take care of the family.


“He did a wonderful job there,” said his sister Martha Zeigler. “God was with us daily.”


That strong faith was a recurring theme of the remarks Oglesby’s family, friends and Habitat comrades made about him at the military ball.


“I can remember him saying, ‘God put us on this earth to help each other,’” recalled daughter Marcelle Davis, the eldest of Morris and Maxine Oglesby’s four children.


“He’s always put God first,” said nephew Ron Harden. “He’s put others second and he puts himself third.”


Harden discussed growing up next door to Oglesby and being taught the proper way to use a hammer by his father and uncle, who started Oglesby and Harden Builders in the late 1960s. Though Ron Harden didn’t follow them into the construction business, he said he still uses a hammer to this day, on mission projects.


Harden credited his family with teaching him the importance of helping others, and he shared a phrase he uses to describe his “favorite uncle.”


“Jolly, good-natured and true, more than his share he’s willing to do,” Harden said. “I think that personifies Morris Oglesby.”


Oglesby’s two sons, Webby and Ricky, both became ministers. Though neither always knew they would follow that path, they were certain they would help others — and they would be in church every Sunday.


“All of us, our whole family, are in ministry one way or another. God is the foundation of our family,” Ricky said. “We grew up next-door to the Methodist church, (and there was) a well-worn path between our house and that church.”


Webby shared the story of his father planting the seed for him to become a minister. Webby was nearing the end of his senior year at Effingham County High School, and his dad asked what he planned to do after he graduated.


He was puzzled by the question, considering his father already had paid to enroll him in college. He was caught even more off-guard by the next one: “Have you ever thought about going into full-time ministry?”


Webby admits to thinking at the time, “He’s really losing it, because he really doesn’t know who I am.”


But in fact, his father knew exactly.


“It was the furthest thing from my mind and my heart, but God had other plans for me — and my dad knew that,” Webby said. “And just because he shared that with me, God brought that into fruition in my life.”


While Webby grew up in a positive environment, his wife Joyce did not. She described living in a “household of total chaos” with “abuse, day in and day out” at the hands of her father.


“When I was 12, I began to pray for God to send someone to teach me how to love,” Joyce said. “And that chain of events brought me Webby. And that chain of events brought Morris Oglesby and Maxine into my life.”


And with it came the love Joyce said she never received from her own father. Webby’s father “adopted me at day one,” she said, and she has always called him “Dad.”


“He is a big part of who I am today,” she said. “I consider it the answer to my 12-year-old prayer.”


Faith building
Morris Oglesby’s military service was recognized at the Habitat ball, but it tells only a small part of his story.


He was a builder in the Army, as he has been throughout his life. He was drafted by the Army Air Corps and served as a combat engineer in World War II.


Oglesby served alongside some soldiers he said “went in the military because they weren’t mature yet.” However, that wasn’t the case for him, after growing up in a household of faith and also helping take care of the family following his father’s death.


“I was mature because I was raised that way,” he said. “I knew that I could go in the military and do what I was supposed to do without any problems.”


With the 873rd Airborne Combat Engineers, Oglesby built roads, airstrips, barracks and medical facilities during the war. Following his military service, he kept right on building.


Along with making his living in construction, Oglesby volunteered with Rincon United Methodist Church’s Kingdom Builders mission and helped build seven churches across the Southeast. He continued building after he “retired,” as Habitat for Humanity of Effingham County became a reality.


“Dad not only has a passion for people, but he has a compassion for people,” Webby Oglesby said. “He hurts with them, and I think a lot of it has to do with what he endured as a child and how hard it was to just get bread on the table and to make things work.”


Floyd Zettler, who has built Habitat houses in Effingham and other communities, said Oglesby has the “biggest passion that I’ve ever seen for people in need.” Zettler fondly recalled his first meeting with the man he called “Mr. Habitat of Effingham County.”


“I think he was just testing me,” Zettler said, “but his first words when we sat down to have a cup of coffee were, ‘Floyd, would you open us in a word of prayer?’”


 Those words of thanks offered when Oglesby sits down for a meal, or even a cup of coffee, are often followed by an update on his latest project — or an assignment for it.


“There’s always a project,” Ricky Oglesby said. “We all come together for Thanksgiving holidays, and there’s a project. The family has to do something. We have to build something. But it’s an honor to be part of that.”


Parker Cates learned that full well after marrying the Oglesbys’ daughter Sue. Cates told his story of driving from Atlanta to Effingham on seven straight Saturdays to help his father-in-law with a building project.


Cates said he would drive for three hours, arrive in Effingham at 7 a.m. and work alongside Oglesby all day. Once the skies turned dark, Oglesby simply pulled out portable lights so they could keep working.


“He’s still wanting to go — but that’s the way he is,” Cates said. “The man never gives up, never gives out.”


Because Oglesby routinely shows that type of commitment, Megan Thompson called him “an inspiration.” Thompson, the president of Habitat of Effingham’s board of directors, held Oglesby’s hand and smiled as she spoke to the audience.


Thompson referenced her Bible study of Exodus chapter 38, which includes Bezalel building the first temple following the Exodus. Bezalel is described in the Bible as a skilled craftsman filled with the spirit of God.


“As I was reading that book, I was thinking of my buddy — the man who started Habitat in Effingham County,” Thompson said. “Before he was building houses for people who need homes, he was building churches. He retires from building, and he keeps building.”


For Zettler, a different Bible verse comes to mind when he thinks about Oglesby. Zettler said his friend epitomizes Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” – because Oglesby’s “life is built on the Lord.”


“That’s the kind of man that Mr. Morris is,” Zettler said. “That’s the kind of man that we all need to be.”


As his father was being showered with praise, Webby pointed out, “He’s not a perfect man, of course. None of us are.


“But,” he added, “when I think about a man that I would want to walk in his footsteps, it’s my dad.”

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