February 07, 2019 | Stories
“Everyone you meet is dealing with a problem you know nothing about,” said Bob Wilson as he leaned back in his chair, cocked his head to the side and half-smiled. “I forgot who said that, maybe Brit Hume? But ever since I saw that…” he said as he pressed his elbows into the table, leaned forward slightly and lowered his voice, “I’ve tried to live by that.”
Bob Wilson is an impressive man who goes out of his way to make sure you don’t leave with that impression. He’s the CFO of Kitchen Kompact, a company he has been with for decades. He’s been at Christ Church “since cave men first walked out” as he so casually puts it. He’s a widower. He’s the father of three and grandfather of five. He is charming and unpretentious. He’s lived enough of life to see the humor in it all and isn’t afraid to laugh.
And although he would never admit it because he doesn’t have that high an opinion of himself… and may very well wave the entire idea away with a guffaw, he sees beauty and hope in people and places when others can’t.
As a senior adult still working full time, he is also the active landlord of a three story Victorian on 4th and Oak Streets in Old Louisville, a notably drug ridden corridor.
When Bob first purchased the building 30 years ago, it was meant to be an extra source of income to help get his three children through college. His wife thought he was crazy. The windows were boarded up. Layers of trash topped layers of used needles and other drug paraphernalia. And people were living in it. It was a pit. How could a man with no experience in carpentry, electrical work or plumbing turn this place around for profit? Yet Bob saw beyond the mess. Down on his hands and knees, he picked up the used needles, put them in the trash and began the work of landlording.
Around that same time in New Jersey, Michelle Hicks was in a fierce battle with drugs and alcohol. “Where I grew up in New Jersey, 90% of the population used. I walked outside to see people drinking on the street corner. My dad was a successful, educated man, but he was an alcoholic. That was just the lifestyle I grew up in. I moved out at 16 and had my first son at 17. At age 23 I began using. Later that year, my trauma and inability to cope with it led me to a psychiatric unit.” Michelle struggled with addiction for another 20 years. Her five children were all living with their fathers. Feeling powerless in her battle with addiction, she found herself living in Virginia. “I didn’t want to keep sticking needles in my arm. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t know how to live. I kept screaming out for God to just take this away, but God was saying, ‘You need to let it go.’”
Suddenly, God intervened.
In 2006, she stood vulnerable before a judge who candidly asked her, “What should I do with you?” At the end of herself and broken, she replied, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me…” she had never understood why she couldn’t just give up the habits or escape the mental health issues that had ravaged her life. Miraculously, the judge gave her 90 days to straighten up. She walked out of the jail that day and a rainbow was shining over the entire building. She looked up at the sky, took a deep breath and acknowledged the God who put it there. She knew it was just for her. She was finally ready to let it go.
“Kentucky is a state of second chances. I did some research and found out that Kentucky approaches addiction and recovery in vastly different ways from other states. I got a bus ticket to Louisville and haven’t looked back.”
While living in a halfway house called Sisters of Hope and Recovery, she got a job at the Brown Hotel and began a recovery dynamics program different from any she had experienced before. It was here that the disease that had stolen her life finally began to make some sense to her.
“They taught the science behind addiction and specialized in the mechanics of the disease. The science of it made perfect sense to me. Finally! Someone was explaining what was wrong with me in a tangible way! You see, everybody just calls addicts crazy, but I finally saw in the science of the brain that you can be separated from the disease and live a life. I learned that my mental health disorders were actual brain dysfunctions. I thought I was forever compelled and condemned to keep putting needles in my arm. But I finally saw that I could be whole again.”
Soon she had obtained her GED and was taking classes at Jefferson Community and Technical College. She then attended the University of Arkansas and received her undergraduate degree and then her first masters, with two more to come later.
She first met Bob Wilson after answering an ad to lease a commercial storefront at 4th and Oak. She came back to Louisville because she knew God had called her to be a part of the recovery work going on in the city. “God allows me to suffer from a special affliction so I can connect with others who are suffering and show them how to live. That’s my ministry.” Her dream was to open a restaurant that gave recovering addicts job training, offered a meeting space for the community, counseling services and more. She wanted to create a safe space for people to feel accepted and meet them right where they were at in their recovery.
Little did she know that when she shook hands with Bob that day, God had already been paving the way.
Over the course of his 30 years as a landlord, Bob has restored and renovated the beautiful Victorian; a vast majority of the work being done with his own hands. Corinthian columns and original steel girders were uncovered and brought back to life. Problems were fixed and the space was cleaned. People were treated with respect and value under his care, something new to many who rented from him.
“When I first started at the building, I got a note from one of the tenants. It was barely legible. It said something like, ‘We’ve never been treated like this before, Thank you.’ All just because I was cleaning it up.” His eyes opened wide and he gave a quick smile. With a sweeping wave of his hand he said flippantly, “I mean this isn’t the Taj Mahal, but I try to keep it clean.”
“Bob would never tell you half of the things he has done for people. He would never want to appear boastful. But there isn’t a time when his tenants or his building aren’t on his mind. When he’s out shopping he thinks about their needs. When someone is getting rid of something, he says, ‘Oh! I could take that down to the apartments.’ If an apartment isn’t furnished, he furnishes it for them. If someone doesn’t have a bed, he gets them one. The things he has done for people, the chances he takes on people, the stories he’s been a part of, it’s amazing,” said Jennie Weeks, Christ Church Director of Adult Discipleship who has known Bob for 30 years.
Stories like him waiving a mother’s rent so she had the money to drive to California to visit her children for the last time or renting to a Vietnam veteran struggling with PTSD. He’s worked with fellow church member Bobby Schiavone, who has a passion for helping former inmates, providing housing for ex-felons who would have nowhere else to live. He makes sure they all have a present at Christmas and a cake on special occasions. He pays all the utilities for the entire building, making the rent even more affordable for those in need. We could write several articles filled with stories of lives changed because they were simply given a chance. But Bob wouldn’t want that much attention. ;)
Stories like this aren’t without their heartache as well. When you walk with hurting people, you hurt with hurting people. Bob has had to evict tenants, been taken to court several times and has seen drugs, alcohol and depression take hold of people’s lives. He’s had a tenant commit suicide and another he later found out died on the streets of Cincinnati. “This has all just been a 30 year learning experience for me. I’ve learned a lot about people and poverty,” said Bob. “I gave up on making any money on this years ago. But don’t make me sound like a martyr or anything...” he said with a concerned grimace. He may have given up on making money there, but he still hasn’t given up on people.
Michelle Hicks immediately liked Bob upon their meeting. In fact, it wasn’t long at all before she started calling him dad. “Mind you, I’m a 56 year old African-American woman! But I call him dad because he is a dad to me. He accepted me without judgment and with no conditions. He’s very authentic. My family didn’t even blink when I started calling him dad. They just get it because he accepts them too.
He has supported my vision financially. He took care of electrical issues from his own pocket. He paid for our signage. He worries for us. He even yells at me when he needs to,” said Michelle with a laugh.
“I don’t think it could have happened with anyone else. God fulfilled his purpose in me by having me meet Bob. God sent Bob to me to start the Chili Bowl.”
The Chili Bowl is the name of the restaurant now at the front of Bob’s property and it’s up and running. They serve chili, philly-cheese steaks, hamburgers and more. Every week they have over 20 people attend the AA meeting held inside the restaurant. The neighborhood is crying out for a safe place like this. Michelle is working to get government grants and has recently established it as a non-profit called Louisville Integrated Care, the first of its kind in the nation as an all-encompassing bridge to addiction recovery within a community. Bob now sits on the board for Louisville Integrated Care and has recently donated the parking lots he owns next to the property for the Chili Bowl to use as a community garden.
“I once had a pastor come to my halfway house and bless it. He told us a house can be blessed, but that a house is actually blessed by those who inhabit it. That’s what is happening at dad’s property. He says he’s too old... he worries for us and the future of the restaurant. But him running the property the way he does… it’s already a mission statement.”
Bob admits that now that he’s getting older he worries for his tenants. But when asked why he keeps the building, he sat back and took a moment to think. After an unhurried minute of reflection, he said, “My wife was kindness personified. I believe she taught me the meaning of kindness. And kindness, however you come by it, influences you.” He got quiet. He said nothing else about it.
Then he excused himself to check his ringing phone.
It was one of his tenants.
He assured him he would be by later with cake to share for Apartment 3.