Many years later, a father keeps his promise


Kimberly Phillips knew she was buying a dump.

The house, off Reisterstown Road about a mile from the Owings Mills shopping center, had been abandoned for five years, had once been used by drug dealers and was only 1,000 square feet in size.

And that was the good news.

"Oh, it was horrid," Kimberly, 28, said. "It smelled. It was dirty. It was old. It was messy."

Which made it, in real estate terms, a "handyman's dream." Not a "drive-by," not something with "curb appeal," but a "fixer-upper," a house with oodles of "potential."

And the house and half-acre it sat upon cost "only" $100,000, which just goes to show you what even dumps sell for in parts of Baltimore County.

So Kimberly Phillips bought it. And things promptly got worse. Unable to live in the house until it could be fixed up, Kimberly drove by one day to find that the seals on the upstairs pipes had broken, flooding the house with 148,000 gallons of water.

Ceilings came down, the basement filled up, the furnace and hot water heater were destroyed -- you get the picture.

The damage amounted to $11,000, but the fire department did arrive on the scene promptly or things could have been even worse. And the firefighters had no trouble finding the place. "Oh, yeah, we used to respond to a lot of drug overdose calls here," one said cheerfully.

But Kimberly Phillips had an ace in the hole. It seems she has a father. Who is a carpenter. Who has a great deal of skill, an even disposition and, most importantly, a great deal of guilt.

"When I was little, my father promised to build me a doll house," Kimberly said. "And he never did."

And let this be a lesson to all fathers everywhere: Never make idle promises to your children. For the promises and the children will come back back to haunt you some day.

"And because I never had a doll house, I had to play with my dolls in the shed," Kimberly said, "with the mower and the gas cans."

So Kimberly reminded her father of his promise. And hinted broadly that since he never built that doll house way back when, it would be a swell idea if he rebuilt and expanded her real house now. Consider it inflation.

And so John, 66 and retired for three years, did. He expects to finish the house -- all 6,100 square feet of it -- this Sunday, which just happens to be Father's Day.

It got a little large didn't it? I asked John.

"Yes," he said. "I've done most of it myself. Had another retired carpenter helping me with parts. And you know, we put 49 squares of shingles on the roof."

Is that a lot?

"Well," John said, "there are four bundles to a square!"

Which means that John put 1.7 billion shingles on the roof. Or something like that. I may be a little off. But it was a lot anyway.

John became a carpenter back in 1948, two years after he got out of the Navy, where he served on the USS Hornet. He built homes around Baltimore and, for many years, did big construction jobs around Washington, including the Capital Centre.

And what was his first impression of the house Kimberly bought?

"Oh, it was a dump," he said. "The ground was good though. And I had promised to build her that doll house."

Before we go on, I have to ask one thing, I said. Were houses really built better way back when?

"No," John said. "There was good workmanship way back when, but there were a lot of flaws in the way homes were built. And products are better now. Better windows, better doors, better insulation."

But the carpenters were better in your era, right?

"Well," he said, "the carpenters today don't seem to have the initiative or the stamina we had. And today a lot of carpenters want money, but they don't want to work for it."

I hear there's a lot of that going around.

"When I started, I got $1.75 an hour and that was pretty good money," John said.

And when you retired?

"Hmmm, about $19 an hour when you figure in benefits."

Which may be why John's son, Jerry, 31, is a carpenter today.

One last thing, I said, and then we'll get back to the story: Do skylights always leak?

"Not if you built them right," John said.

Which is what they always say. Anyway, Kimberly's house is almost done -- it's so big because Kimberly is going to have a photography studio in there -- and except for some arguments over the windows ("Dad is practical and I'm elaborate," Kimberly said) and, amazingly, over a laundry chute, the whole process wasn't too terrible.

"I understand it's like having a baby," Kimberly said. "Once it's over, you forget about how you got there."

John is pretty pleased and working hard to make the Sunday deadline. "I think the world of my kids," he said. "I enjoy them. They never gave me and my wife, Lucylle, any problems."

By the way, I asked, you got any work to do around your own house?

"Oh, yeah," John said. "But I think I'm just going to let it go."

I will be spoiling no surprises by reporting that on Sunday there will be a big party at the new house and that Kimberly will present John with a Father's Day card, a free trip to Las Vegas and, yes, even some cash.

But as John is being toasted and hugged and kissed and as he thinks back on the satisfaction of a job well done and how much joy his children have brought him over the years, I bet one thought will keep running through his head:

It would have been a whole lot easier to build that doll house.

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