Retired prison chaplain, one-man habitat for humanity, and Johnny Appleseed of playground basketball rims
As told to Brenda Pittsley
It’s easy to believe Ron Willhite, 58, was a brawler in his youth. With his burly form, meaty hands and red hair, he looks like the longshoreman he once was. He has a booming laugh, a baritone voice and, by his own admission, "a crotch mouth I have to be so careful with."
Dressed in a plaid shirt and faded sweatpants, Willhite is not the kind of guy you’d pick out of a lineup as a successful businessman and real estate tycoon, but that’s what he is.
Before he was 21 and before he graduated from Puget Sound with a double major in economics and business and a minor in accounting, Willhite already owned 150 houses in the Tacoma area. Since then, his real estate ventures–encompassing single-family homes, land, apartment buildings and mixed-use commercial developments–have been valued in the millions of dollars. Still, he’s no Donald Trump.
The son of a central Oregon farmhand, Willhite comes from a hardscrabble background. "I grew up poor, I grew up rough, and I grew up fighting," he says. "I’d fight at the drop of a hat."
Willhite left home to join the Army when he was 17, a move that landed him at Fort Lewis, outside Tacoma. There, he set goals and began to act on them: "I decided that the thing I wanted to do in life was help those who were less fortunate."
He persued this ambition with a singular and abiding commitment, which hints at another important part of his personality: Willhite is one of the most actively devout Christians you’re likely to meet. Faith has shaped his entire professional life.
In real estate, he buys property that previous owners neglected, fixes it up, often with his own hands, and rents the clean, refurbished units to poor families, single parents and others who are down on their luck. Over 25 years Willhite bought, sold, traded and gave away hundreds of properties. Now he is back in real estate after a 15-year hiatus. His decade-and-a-half detour was spent as chaplain at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, a job from which he retired last summer.
Not content, Willhite’s pet project is to install nearly indestructible new basketball backboards and hoops at schools, playgrounds and parks around the Northwest. He does this without seeking thanks, and often the recipients never even know who was responsible. Another personal endeavor involves painting and repairing at least two privately owned homes each year–for free.
This is Ron Willhite’s story, told in his own words.
I’ve always had a deep faith. I didn’t always act like it on the outside, but I always knew that the Lord loved me and that I loved him. I was pretty rough around the edges. I’m still a little rough around the edges. I go to church most Sundays and I go to Bible studies, but I’m kind of a coarse character compared to your average pastor or your average fluffy Christian. I’m not very fluffy. I still call BS BS, and I’m not afraid to spell it out to someone who’s trying to blow smoke in my ear.
When I was at UPS, I determined that I was going to be a missionary for the Lord by my early 40s. And it happened that way, too. But back then, when I was in my early 20s, I thought that being a missionary meant going to Africa and living in a mud hut. As it turned out, my mud hut was the concrete mama, the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.
Test of faith
The time my faith was tested most, and grew the most, was Wesley Allen Dodd’s execution. Wesley Allen Dodd was the most infamous child molester and rapist ever in the Northwest, and probably the western United States.
A couple of months before we executed Wesley, he asked me to baptize him. It was a blessing for me to participate in that. He tried to do everything he could do to be spiritually a clean person. He wasn’t trying to get the hanging stopped. He didn’t want do-gooder attorneys to try to save him from being executed, but inside his heart he was a different man.
I’ve worked two Billy Graham crusades. I’ve supported Billy Graham my whole business life. I know him personally. I’ve been alone with him. And I can tell you that when Wesley Allen Dodd died he was cleaner spiritually than any man I have ever met.
I come to tears over this each time, [because it allowed me] to know that God’s forgiveness is so complete and so thorough. If God could cover that, as he did; if that could be real, as it was; to know that God could forgive Wesley for what he did, is to know that he has forgiven me. Nothing goes beyond the cross. This is the love of Christ: His ability to understand our sinful nature and to have chosen to die for what most of us would look at as the most heinous crime we can think of, the molestation of young boys. A love that’s that great is a love we can just barely appreciate.
My sins nailed Jesus to the cross the same as Wesley Allen Dodd’s did. Here on earth we have prisons and courts and we set up different punishments for murder and robbery, but in God’s eyes, sin is sin. Murder, to God, doesn’t pound the nails any deeper than if I were to try to cheat someone when I’m buying or selling real estate. We all sin. We all fall short of the glory of God.
A roof over their heads
I’ve always been in low-income housing. Even the downtown commercial buildings were bought because of the low-income rental units on the upper floors. We rent to poor people. I’ve never rented a unit I wouldn’t sleep in myself.
I started in the early ’60s in Tacoma when they were downsizing the military. Fort Lewis and McChord were shipping men out by the thousands. Every Sunday there’d be 50 ads in the newspaper saying "assume my mortgage." And since I’m a dumb farm boy, every Monday I’d go down to Coast Mortgage and hold five couples’ hands. I’d pay $3 and they’d sign their house over to me, because otherwise they were going to lose their house. If their payment was $60, I’d own their house for $3, and rent it for $60.
I ended up owning 150 houses and I’m not even 21 years old yet. I wasn’t smart enough to know I was in trouble. I was just starting college. I didn’t have any education other than I knew how to work hard; I could paint the house, fix the wallboard, or pour new front steps, whatever it needed.
We started Inland Real Estate in Spokane in ’72. Then when I got ready to leave the prison, [my partners and I] said let’s buy some more buildings and do it again. We feel that now in Spokane it’s 1972 all over again in terms of the needs of the elderly and the poor and the ability to buy buildings that other people haven’t been good stewards of. In just a couple of months we’ve bought four buildings and 150 units.
Two of those buildings are almost totally rehabbed and we’re starting on the third. We work fast and hard. We start at 6 in the morning and stop at 6 at night on a good day. I like to work hard. I’m a workaholic. I think I’ll work helping other people to the day I die.
Another thing I’ve done is every year I attempt to fix up a minimum of two houses for free. I’ll find what I call the working poor. I’ll just drive around and find the ugliest house I can that needs paint or a roof or both. I’ll knock on the door and say, "Hey, I want to paint your house, put new porches on, for free." I’ve always prayed about it and the Lord has always provided that I’ve never got my teeth knocked out or even made anybody mad.
Playing above the rim
I started Kids at Risk in ’94. The prison administration had asked all the executive-level people to volunteer time at a local elementary school. I went down and saw that they had a basketball court, but both backboards were ruined and both hoops were gone. So I went and bought the very best fiberglass backboards and hoops they had in town and a friend and I put them up on a Friday evening. By Monday one hoop was gone and the other one was bent in half.
[My friend] and I, we’re the kind of guys who, when we get mad, we do something about it. So we got mad and reinvented the basketball hoop. We built two kinds we call "LA Proof." One weighs 19 pounds and the other weighs 25 pounds, but when you put them up they look like anyone else’s.
We’ve done 6,000 hoops in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California and Hawaii. We’ve done virtually 100 percent of the state of Washington. That means we’ve gone through and replaced every broken hoop in every town that exists in the state of Washington. Schools, parks, housing projects, Indian reservations–I just go do them. I drive my car right up in the middle of the lot with my trailer on it, I take out my equipment, I rebuild everything, and I drive away. Eighty percent of the time, nobody knows who’s been there.
Sharing the bounty
The Lord’s been so good to us. I’ve never missed a meal. I have everything that I want. I drive a darn nice car. I drive new snowmobiles every year. So I just feel that I have to give back. I think most Christians have no idea what it’s like to give of their bounty. I’m talking about 95 percent of the Christians in the world. They don’t have the vaguest idea what it is to give back until it hurts. Or to give until it makes a difference.
I give sometimes when I have to borrow money to give. Because if I can borrow money to buy a new snowmobile, and then if I see a need, I can borrow to do something there, too.