James Erskine, Chemistry
By John Allen
“It is very satisfying, rewarding work to build decent, affordable housing for low income families who want to earn their first home.”
Faith saw a dream come true, and James Erskine, ’63, recalls the story about one of the Habitat for Humanity homes he worked on as a volunteer.
“Habitat for Humanity of Southern Brazoria County (HFHSBC) was building a home across the street from an elementary school,” Erskine said. “A teacher brought her class to see what was involved in building a Habitat home. One of the girls was so impressed that she later told her parents she believed they could qualify for such a home. Her parents were not as convinced; yet, their daughter said with hard work and faith they could do it.
“A year later, the girl and her family moved in to their new home. It was this girl’s faith, persistence and hard work that earned her family the house. Ironically, her name is Faith. The Habitat home is known to this day as ‘Faith’s House’.”
Erskine enjoys many similar stories of working side-by-side with the future homeowners of Habitat homes. He embraces the value of one of the criteria Habitat homeowners must support: the willingness “to partner with Habitat for Humanity and contribute hundreds of sweat equity hours to the construction of their own home, or their neighbor’s home.”
“This truly is a ‘hand up, not hand out’ organization, where homeowners can take pride in their participation and in their work,” Erskine said.
The Habitat for Humanity organization, founded in 1976, has “built, rehabilitated, repaired or improved more than 600,000 houses worldwide”. This equates to providing shelter to more than 6.8 million people.
In Southern Brazoria County, Texas, Erskine has worked on Habitat construction since 1997.
“My church sponsored Habitat home build #13 in June 1997, providing the materials and all volunteer construction labor. I decided to help and I’ve been hooked ever since. It is very satisfying, rewarding work to build decent, affordable housing for low income families who want to earn their first home.”
Mike Heather, former Executive Director for HFHSBC, says Erskine is the “ideal volunteer”.
“He cares about the families he serves and the other volunteers he works beside,” Heather said. “He willingly gives of his time and talents, expecting nothing in return. Jim pulls together all of our house plans, maintains a system to keep regular and first time construction volunteers informed of upcoming builds, and works onsite as a ‘skill leader’ leading and training other volunteers. I wish we had a lot more Jims.”
The Journey to Lake Jackson
A native of Alva, Okla., Erskine’s father encouraged him to study chemistry. Attending Northwestern, Erskine often found himself in the campus library studying with other science students. After graduating with a chemistry degree in 1963, Erskine chose to earn his Master’s degree at Oklahoma State University. Immediately upon graduation, he moved to Lake Jackson, Texas, to begin a 41-year career at Dow Chemical.
Erskine enjoyed his career as a chemist, serving in leadership positions in several of Dow’s groups. Before retirement, he was the research leader specializing in mass spectrometry techniques.
His retirement in 2001 allowed him the opportunity to give more time to the local Habitat mission. Erskine has been involved in more than 80 homes in some capacity, including drawing plans, foundation preparation, framing, roofing, insulation, drywall – from hanging to finishing, installing trim and cabinets, landscaping and volunteer coordination.
His humanitarian spirit also includes volunteering at a Dallas soup kitchen, including helping with its day care program. He has joined youth and adult mission trips using his construction skills to make improvements on homes, school buildings and churches.
Erskine’s heart for service to others was recognized at Northwestern’s Spring Alumni Reunion banquet on April 29, 2017, when he was honored as the Outstanding Graduate, Humanitarian. In what has become known as “typical Jim Erskine fashion”, he humbly accepted the award, then joined other HFHSBC volunteers to begin House #104 the day he returned from the Oklahoma trip.
And the houses that follow may hold the dreams of a child like Faith. Erskine’s hands and heart will make it happen.
The original feature first appeared in the 2016-2017 roundUP alumni magazine, and has been updated to reflect current information.