2014 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"It is often easier to give money to charities than it is to give of your time. In fact, usually both are important."
J. Ronald "Ron" Terwilliger was born in the nation's capital in 1941. Ron grew up in nearby Arlington, Virginia, raised by two loving parents who worked hard to care for Ron and his younger brother Bruce. Neither of his parents attended college. His father worked during the day as a salesman and at night as either a local movie theater manager or as a deputy sheriff. "Typically my father would come home from work, take a nap, join us for dinner, and then leave for one of his night jobs, returning home after our bedtime," says Ron. "We only had one car, and he worked two jobs so that my mother could stay home to take care of us. My father was away from home working all of the time, which made it difficult to form a close relationship with him. But I always knew he loved me and would do anything to protect and support me. When I was older and playing sports, my dad tried to attend my games. And later when I played basketball at the U.S. Naval Academy, he would drive more than an hour to Annapolis to see the game. He also listened to the radio broadcast of Navy basketball games when the team played away."
Ron has particularly fond memories of his mother. "She was the most selfless person I've ever known," he says. "She couldn't do enough for my brother Bruce and me. When I was in high school we spent a lot of time at the Chesapeake Bay catching crabs. My mother would spend all day picking the crabs and cooking for us. She was all about her boys. Unfortunately she was stricken by Alzheimer's disease when she was only 70. We didn't know what was wrong with her at the time. I always wished I'd spent more time with her as an adult and had the presence to say goodbye when she could still understand me. It's one of my great regrets."
Ron describes his youth as "incredibly wholesome." His parents taught him to be honest, competitive, and hard working. Ron did what was expected of him and stayed out of trouble. "In those days, the 'bad kids' were the ones who snuck a few sips of beer," he says. "It was a fairly innocent time. We played stickball in the streets and pick- up basketball and football. I was very interested in sports throughout my youth."
Most of the Terwilligers' neighbors worked for the government or served in the military. "No one had any money," says Ron. "We were all about equal financially. We didn't have much in the way of material possessions, but the things we did have we used and used and used. I never felt like anything was missing in my life."
From the age of 12, Ron began working each summer. One year he worked for a car dealership, mopping floors, emptying trash, and polishing cars. Another year he surveyed supplies for the local school district. He also had a job tracking inventory for a moving company. Ron worked as an usher at the movie theater and also laid sod as a landscaper one summer. He saved his hard earned money and, when he was a sophomore in high school, bought a car with his father, paying half of the cost from his own savings.
Ron didn't think much about his future, but he assumed his parents expected him to go to college. He enjoyed school and was a successful scholar and competitor. As a senior, he was voted his school's "Outstanding Athlete". Ron was the captain of his baseball team and excelled at basketball. His strong athletic abilities earned him a sports scholarship to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Looking back on those times, Ron didn't think his parents could afford to send him to college, so his athletic scholarship was the key to his future.
Ron will never forget the day he woke up in his athletic dorm at George Washington University and could not bend over. "It was October 1958, and it was the first time I was aware I had a back problem," he says. "The first doctor my father took me to diagnosed me with spondylolisthesis and said I needed a steel rod in my back. He also said I would never play sports again. I just about died on the spot."
Ron's father took him to another doctor for a second opinion. This doctor said a steel rod was unnecessary, but Ron was temporarily suspended from his athletic activities. After about two months of rest, Ron was able to return to his normal activities. "I still have this displacement of vertebra in my back," he says, "but I have learned to live with it."
Ron decided to accept a recruitment offer from the U.S. Naval Academy. While there, he was able to return to playing basketball and baseball. He rose to become an Academic All American in basketball and All East in baseball. Ron was ranked in the top 7 percent of his class and upon graduation in 1963 was commissioned an ensign in the Navy. He served five years active duty, including several years on a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine.
Ron resigned from the Navy in 1968 in order to attend Harvard Business School. Once again he achieved academic excellence and was named a Baker Scholar, finishing in the top 5 percent of his class. "Harvard scared me to death at first," says Ron. "All the other students seemed so smart, and I thought I was going to flunk out. But I found that with hard work and perseverance I was able to compete academically.
In 1970 Ron accepted a job in real estate with the Sea Pines Company in Hilton Head, South Carolina. He was named president of the Sea Pines Plantation Company just three years later. In 1975 he left Sea Pines to serve as the chief financial officer at the Henry C. Beck Company, a general contractor in Dallas, Texas.
In 1978 Ron was offered a partnership at Trammell Crow Residential. "Accepting that offer was a big decision for me," says Ron. "I would have to take a major pay cut, but in exchange for a 40 percent ownership in the company. If the Trammell Crow family did well financially, I would too. The scary part for me was giving up my job security. At this point I was married with two young daughters. I was 38 years old and security meant a lot to me, but I had not been feeling challenged in my current position. My dad always told me he regretted never taking a chance at a job change. I just decided that if I was ever going to take a chance and be an entrepreneur, then at 38, the time was now. It was one of the most important and difficult decisions I ever made."
Five years after his arrival in Atlanta to work at Trammell Crow Residential, Ron became the CEO of the national company. Under his leadership, the company grew to become the largest developer of multifamily housing in the United States. After 30 years at the helm, he retired. "I loved my work at Trammell Crow," says Ron. "I loved going to work each day. I had excellent partners, great friends, and I loved the real estate industry. I believe that people who are happy and love what they are doing give more of themselves to others, and make valuable contributions to society. I always advise young people to follow their dreams—whether it's in the arts, history or whatever it is that makes them happy. Find your own passion, and follow your own dreams."
Ron Terwilliger serves as chairman of Habitat for Humanity's Global Capital Campaign, the Terwilliger Center for Housing at the Urban Land Institute, and Enterprise Community Partners. All of these organizations help to provide housing for families in need. Ron also chairs the "I Have a Dream" Foundation, a nonprofit focused on helping low-income youth graduate from high school and go on to maximize their academic potential.
Mr. Terwilliger's $100 million legacy gift to Habitat for Humanity International will help 60,000 families access improved housing conditions. He has given gifts of $5 million to the ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing and the Enterprise Foundation for the creation of the Enterprise Terwilliger Fund, and has committed $20 million to the United States Naval Academy.
In the last two years, Ron has focused a lot of his time and resources on affordable housing. Ron serves as a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) Housing Commission and chairman of the BPC Economic Policy Council. He has personally advocated for Congress to reallocate housing subsidies in order to support lower income Americans who are housing cost burdened, and who need help to afford a decent place to live in a safe community.
Ron has two daughters, Bonnie and Tracy, who live in Atlanta, Georgia and are raising his four grandchildren. Ron currently lives in New York and Florida with his wife Fran and stepchildren Brendan and Kiki. Ron typically visits Atlanta several times a month to spend time with his children and grandchildren.
"When I'm gone, I would rather be known for my philanthropy than for my success in real estate," says Ron. "My philosophy is that those of us who have had good fortune in life have a responsibility to give back. For me, success is related to having a positive impact on others—having your life matter in ways beyond your personal joys and satisfactions. Being able to impact others through leadership—by being a role model, by being supportive, and by what you contribute financially—is how I define success."
In 2008 Ron was inducted into the National Association of Homebuilder's Hall of Fame in recognition of his efforts to advance housing opportunities for all Americans. Ron Terwilliger was named a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in 2009. In 2012 he was honored with the National Patriotism Award from the National Foundation of Patriotism. He was named the 2013 Laureate as the recipient of the Urban Land Institute J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionary Urban Development for his extraordinary civic and philanthropic efforts to raise awareness of decent housing as a basic human need.