Unsung Hero: Gerry Brookes of Brunswick, stalwart for Habitat

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BRUNSWICK — How many people do you know who went from teaching British literature in Nebraska to building houses in Maine?

Meet Gerry Brookes.

Brookes spent 30 years as an English professor at the University of Nebraska.

“It was a great time,” he recalled, “because we had a lot of freedom to experiment with different courses and teaching strategies.”

In his spare time he helped raise a family and trained for triathlons.

In 2000, Brookes made a significant life change: He retired and moved to Brunswick with his wife, a native Mainer.

Instead of teaching literature, he now builds and rehabs houses for Habitat for Humanity. He can no longer do triathlons because of knee problems, but he stays in fine shape by biking and swimming.

“I needed something to do,” Brookes explained, “and I saw this guy on ‘This Old House’ who said, ‘The way to learn carpentry is to put on a tool belt and start working.’”

And that’s exactly what Brookes did.

He worked on his first Habitat house in Bowdoinham in 2002. Since that time, he has helped build about 15 houses, in addition to working on renovations and weatherization projects. He has also served on the board of Habitat for Humanity/7Rivers.

“There’s a group of eight or 10 of us who call ourselves ‘The Regulars,’” Brookes said. Most of them are retired, and work every Wednesday and Friday.

“It’s a compatible group. We help each other out,” Brookes said, adding that the local Habitat chapter has developed a fine reputation for its weatherization work.

“I enjoy the work,” he said. “It’s rewarding to help people who are needy have an affordable place to live.”

Brookes noted that Habitat for Humanity/7 Rivers faces difficult financial challenges, as do all Habitat chapters in the U.S. “Habitat had to develop new funding sources because of the soaring cost of materials, so the ReStore in Bath was started,” he said.

The ReStore accepts donations of a variety of materials, such as tools, plumbing supplies, and furniture, and sells them to help cover the expenses of the organization.

The other issue facing Habitat for Humanity/7 Rivers concerns the independent streak of Mainers, who are often reluctant to take what is perceived as a “handout.”

In fact, the families accepted to move into a Habitat house don’t get a handout; rather, they get the opportunity to purchase a house at a below-market price with no down payment and an affordable mortgage. In exchange, they help to build the house, or they provide some other service for Habitat.

Brookes describes the people who help select and support families for Habitat houses as “angelic.” The same term could be applied to all volunteers who provide their time and talents to this extraordinary organization.

Sidebar Elements

Gerry Brookes, left, poses with his crew of fellow volunteers at a house in West Bath. Brookes spent 30 years as an English professor at the University of Nebraska. Since retiring to Maine, he has helped out on 20 different properties as a Habitat for Humanity volunteer.

Unsung Heroes

One in a series of profiles by Brunswick writer David Treadwell about people who quietly contribute to the quality of life in greater Portland. Do you know an Unsung Hero? Tell us: heroes@theforecaster.net.