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He was a Zen Buddhist monk; now he's a Racine Habitat for Humanity construction leader

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Tedd Swartz studies a piece of wood

Tedd Swartz, construction leader for the Racine Habitat for Humanity, examines a piece of wood after hammering a nail into it last month at the organization's warehouse, 2049 Racine St. Content Exchange

RACINE — Tedd Swartz doesn’t own a TV and hasn’t for 10 years. He considers watching television a “time waster.”

“I threw it out the front door,” he said. “I had enough of it.”

He would much rather read the classics, or about philosophy and other “obscure topics” he said, such as math, physics or psychology, geopolitics or cymatics, the study of visible sound and vibration.

He has a large collection of dictionaries, of which he said he couldn’t estimate how many volumes are included.

“I have thousands of books. I have shelves everywhere,” he said.

The two pieces of technology he won’t refuse to own, however, are a computer and a smartphone. He once tried getting rid of his smartphone, but that lasted about three weeks before he was told he needed it for his job.

“Gotta have those two because you can’t function in today’s world without them,” he said.

His job is full-time construction leader for Racine Habitat for Humanity, where he’s worked for the past 10 years, helping it reach the milestone of completing its 100th home earlier this year.

He works six days a week, Monday through Saturday.

But he took a unique path to get there, from being a professional server to a Zen monk to a carpenter.

Tedd Swartz, construction leader for the Racine Habitat for Humanity, explains he puts about 300 to 400 miles a week on the Habitat truck, pic…

An ‘eclectic’ man

Swartz, 50, moved to West Racine in 2008 when the economic recession hit. Before that, Swartz was born and raised in Detroit. He went to St. Lawrence Seminary High School, in Mount Calvary in Fond du Lac County, for two years in hopes of becoming a Catholic priest.

There, he met a monk. After that meeting, he never looked back at the priesthood.

He was an acolyte monk for three and a half years and lived in a temple. He became a Zen monk, focusing on the practice of meditation.

Zen is a division of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in China during the Tang dynasty.

“I don’t know much about Buddhism; I know a lot about Zen, even though I was a quote-unquote Buddhist monk,” he said. “It was a different way of living, to say the least. It was definitely not American.”

He spent a lot of time doing outreach work in the community. He taught yoga and meditation in the temple where he lived.

He never graduated St. Lawrence — dropping out either in 1986 or 1987, he said — and got a GED. He started attending Oakland Community College in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, then jumped to Wayne State University in Detroit and started studying medicine.

“I really liked science,” Swartz said. “I still do.”

Next, he bounced back to Oakland Community College and started studying photography. He was a sculptor and self-described “maker” in Detroit, involved in the larger arts community. But photography wasn’t a field he ever worked in.

He took his first photography class “just to take a class.” He dropped out of Oakland Community College and continued working in restaurants — a field he had worked in since he was 12. He worked for restaurants in total for 16 years.

He then went to school for four years to become a carpenter and took part in an apprenticeship for five years. For three of those five, he built homes. He worked as a production framer, building large structures such as apartment complexes. The latter two years he was in the display field, working at shows and installing permanent museum fixtures.

“It was fun,” Swartz said. “I’m just really good with my hands.”

Tedd Swartz said he invents things, such as what he calls a “water distillation unit.” Water distillers already exist, but his machine, which …

Now, he continues to sculpt, make and fix things. “There’s nothing I can’t fix,” he said.

He writes short stories and poetry, and invents things, such as what he calls a “water distillation unit.” Water distillers already exist, but his machine, which he said he built in about a day two years ago, could potentially convert raw sewage to distilled water — but that’s something he hasn’t tested.

“I’m pretty eclectic,” he said.

Habitat Executive Director Grant Buenger used the word “eclectic” to describe Swartz as well.

“He has a very diverse set of skills, training and experience,” Buenger said in an email.

Tedd Swartz, a construction leader with Habitat for Humanity of Racine, gives instructions to volunteers from Young Professionals of Racine on…

Connecting with others

Swartz said one awesome part of his job is meeting so many different people.

“We’ve got a lot of engineers and scientists that are retired that are just brilliant,” Swartz said. “A lot of times, a guy like me, a carpenter, doesn’t get the opportunity to interact in an intimate setting with the people of that caliber, that intelligence.”

Buenger said Swartz can talk about almost anything with anyone. “He is just as comfortable speaking with pastors or scientists as he is with fellow tradesmen.”

Swartz doesn’t typically swing any hammers, but he gets the materials together, facilitates and supports the volunteers, making sure they’re safe and on schedule, Swartz said.

“You get to see a family change the course of their life,” he said of why he likes his job. “Homeownership is a foundational element in getting out of poverty. That’s really awesome to be involved with, because it matters.”

He appreciates being a part of Habitat, one reason being its Christian faith; the staff prays often together.

“One of the best things humans can do together is eat; and the other thing is worship, or come together under a common goal,” he said. “I’ve learned more in 10 years about human relation than I have anywhere else. It’s been an incredible learning experience.”

Buenger said one of Swartz’s greatest strengths is “his ability to connect with and teach those who volunteer with us. He makes everyone feel comfortable with the task at hand and gives them the confidence to complete it.”

“I am thankful to have Tedd on our staff team,” Buenger said. “I especially appreciate his intentionality with and care for our partner families and volunteers. They enjoy working alongside him.”

This article originally ran on

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