PITTSFIELD — Ask John Wendling about his childhood, and he’ll tell you about tough times.
And why he’s helping today to create new housing in his home town of Pittsfield.
Wendling grew up in Pittsfield on Crane Avenue. He was born in 1937, the tail end of the Great Depression and the ramp up toward World War II. He remembers empty shelves in grocery stores and ill-fitting clothes — “a pair of carpenter’s pants that were so loose someone else could jump into them.”
He recalls going to school with holes in his shoes, picking frozen apples off trees for breakfast. At home, his family life was fractured. His father, an alcoholic, abused him and his siblings throughout their childhoods – right up to the moment his father threw him out of the house and told him not to come back without a job.
Those “tough times” didn’t last forever.
Wendling returned home with a job as a carpentry apprentice for a builder named Wesley Deming. He made $2 a day, working seven days a week, learning the trade until he started building houses himself.
Wendling, 85, went on to construct over 300 houses in Berkshire County, properties that “sold like hotcakes” during Pittsfield’s boom during the General Electric era, he recalls. He brought a corps of carpenters along with him, including his son Paul. In an interview, Paul recalls working alongside his father from the time he was a teenager.
“Just follow me,” John Wendling instructed him. “I don’t want you to do anything else.”
All the while, Wendling was glad to give what he had to people who needed it, if they asked. He encouraged people who were down and out to advocate for themselves, saying that if he could do it, they could, too.
“If I made any money, I was always willing to help people out with it,” John Wendling said. “I know what I went through.”
Fittingly, the latest building project to his credit could be supportive housing for homeless people on West Housatonic Street. For this project, he’s lending something more than his hammer and his time. He donated the land for the project, two lots at 107 and 111 West Housatonic St.
The donation was made in honor of the woman who gave him the land years ago. The land was owned by Josephine Dragone Frieri, who employed Wendling for years beginning when he was 16 years old. Wendling began by maintaining, and eventually constructing, properties that she owned.
The lots could soon become home to a three-story building that will provide housing and services in one location for homeless people in Pittsfield.
Eileen Peltier, president and CEO of the Berkshire Housing Development Corporation, said the donation of the land was a “critical component of making this project happen.”
Finding a downtown location that can be developed with proximity to services would have been difficult without the donation, she said.
The project still needs to secure key funding from the state Department of Housing and Community Development. Peltier said she believes that being able to point to the donation as an example of community investment makes their case jump off the page.
“When they see a citizen who’s willing to step up and who cares about homeless people in the community, it really makes us stand out,” Peltier said.
Wendling hopes the project will help those who need it.
Looking back on a life of struggles and success, Wendling says he has learned lessons and received blessings. He tells his kids to work for themselves — and to work hard.
“You get your ups and you get your downs in life,” Wendling said. “So you’ve gotta make your own way.”