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Allan Tibbels, of Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, dies

Repentant drug dealers and gang members streamed into Allan Tibbels' home Thursday without knocking. Children who once went hungry dove into food spread on the kitchen table. Community leaders from Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood and elsewhere sat together, swapping stories of inspiration.

The scene, said Susan Tibbels, reflected nothing less than her husband's lifelong dream.

Allan Tibbels, a quadriplegic who abandoned a life of suburban prosperity a quarter-century ago to toil on behalf of his adopted city neighborhood, a pious man who expressed his convictions through hammers and nails and drywall, died of multiple organ failure early Thursday morning at Mercy Medical Center. He was 55.

For nearly 21 years, Mr. Tibbels was the force behind Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, an organization that built and renovated nearly 300 homes in one of the city's most blighted areas.

"He was an inspiring moral example," said Michael Sarbanes, the former head of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association and a top official in the city school system.

Many of the stories friends shared about Mr. Tibbels started with the curiosity about a white man in a wheelchair moving his family into a impoverished black neighborhood. All ended with a way that he had changed their life.

"Everything was always about Sandtown," said LaVerne Stokes, a co-executive director of the Habitat program and an owner of one of the rebuilt homes. "Even on his deathbed, he was still talking about the community. Our community knows that if anybody loved them, he did."

Not only did Mr. Tibbels construct homes for his Sandtown neighbors, he opened his own to those in need. Fitt Bennett, whom the Tibbels family took in when he was about 13 years old, recalled how Mr. Tibbels instilled in him a sense of responsibility that transcends racial and socioeconomic barriers.

Mr. Bennett, now 33, said his mother suffered from drug abuse, and when the Tibbels family moved to his neighborhood, he was intrigued by the white family. He knocked on the family's door nearly every day to ask if Mr. Tibbels could "come out and play." What was supposed to be a short stay with the family in seventh grade turned permanent. The Tibbels family put him through boarding school and college.

"I just invited myself into their lives," Mr. Bennett said. "And he has just been the most inspirational person in my life. I've never heard of anyone, especially in his position, able and willing to give as much as he did."

Mr. Tibbels grew up in the Baltimore County community of Sudbrook Park and was a 1973 graduate of what was then Milford Mill High School. He later earned a degree at Towson University.

As a young man, he ran a successful janitorial service and persuaded many of his friends to work for him. He married Susan when both were 18, and wound up owning a comfortable home on 11 acres in Howard County's Clarksville. He played in a rock band and once had shoulder-length hair. He loved the music of the Beatles, King Crimson and Bruce Cockburn, his friends said.

He sold the Clarksville property in 1986 and moved into a burned-out shell of a Baltimore home with his wife and two daughters. He was a founder and elder in the Presbyterian Church in America's New Song Community Church at 1601 N. Calhoun St.

"He had been reading books about social justice and fairness," said his lifelong friend, Jim Gorman. "He felt he had a calling to go into the city. He just knew there was something there for him."

"There were two assumptions," Susan Tibbels said in a 2006 Baltimore Sun article, describing the views of neighbors when the family moved in. "One was that because my husband was in a wheelchair, we were poor and didn't have any choice. Others thought we were working for the police as undercover drug agents."

Mr. Tibbels broke his neck during a basketball game in 1981.

"He was very fast, a good athlete and was going in for a shot," said Mr. Gorman. "Someone ran in front of him, tripped him and in the small confines of a church gym, Allan ran into a wall."

Mr. Tibbels spent months in rehabilitation and had to use a wheelchair since the accident. He learned to drive a specially equipped car.

"If he ever had a racist bone in his body, he broke it in his neck," Mr. Bennett said.

Three years after founding New Song Urban Ministries, Mr. Tibbels, his wife and friend Mark Gornik launched the Habitat program as a way for religious adherents to recognize and atone for their sins.

"You can say it was a faith conviction to relocate to a hurting area and try to help," Mr. Tibbels said in a 2004 Sun interview.

The ministry grew to include New Song Academy grade school, New Song Community Learning Center, a family health center, job assistance program and an arts program, but the homebuilding program was always its most visible venture.

The program targeted a 15-square-block area in West Baltimore that had about 350 abandoned homes in the late 1980s.

President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, perhaps the most prominent supporters of Habitat for Humanity, visited the area in 1992 for the first Summer Building Week, an annual event that now draws about 300 volunteers.

"The problems that plague this community didn't happen overnight, and they're not going to be turned around overnight," Mr. Tibbels said in 2005. "I think for those of us who have been working to turn it around, we knew we were in it for the long haul."

Antoine Bennett recalled how Mr. Tibbels challenged his life of crime and selling drugs. Mr. Bennett now owns a Habitat home.

"He loved us and he wasn't afraid of us," said Mr. Bennett, who is the cousin of Fitt Bennett. "Executive directors come and go, neighbors come and go. When you show love, that stays."

It wasn't only the lives of the poor and misguided that Mr. Tibbels changed.

"We call him a hero," said the Rev. Ben Abell, pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium. The church's congregation took part in building homes in Sandtown. Mr. Abell said his whole church has been changed by its participation in Mr. Tibbels' programs.

"This is a man who not only talked about what he believed — he lived it," he said. "In the Christian faith, those are our heroes."

Mark Lange, another lifelong friend who lives in Sandtown, said Mr. Tibbels was "as driven as Donald Trump, but he was driven in a different way. He was driven to live the life of the Gospel."

Through tears of joy, sorrow and frustration, Mr. Tibbels' friends and neighbors recalled Thursday a relentless and faithful man who still had much to accomplish in revitalizing the neighborhood, a charge they vowed to undertake through the continued relationship and leadership of his family.

But as Susan Tibbels memorialized her husband Thursday, she spoke of how he was simply an agent for change, with a mission from God. She also described how a doctor told her years ago that the life expectancy of someone with Mr. Tibbels' injuries was 20 years, and that 98 of 100 marriages involving a quadriplegic end in divorce.

He had made peace with the fact that his work on that mission was done in the final hours of his life, she said.

"He's out of his wheelchair and playing basketball," she said with a smile. "He's earned the rest. Probably more than anyone I know."

Plans for a funeral are incomplete.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two daughters, Jessica Moss of Baltimore and Jennifer Tibbels-Jordan of New York City; two brothers, Louis C. "Butch" Tibbels and Gary M. Tibbels, both of Baltimore; and three grandchildren. He also raised Fitt Bennett and Gary Mitchell.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

egreen@baltsun.com

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