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Honors: Life lessons in giving

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Even though they are homebound these days, Billie and Alan Houghton are still encouraging people to support their community with gifts of time and money.

The Georgetown County United Way presented its first “Lifetime Philanthropy Award” to the Houghtons this month during a meeting of the Pillar Society, leadership givers of the Sonny Siau Leadership Giving Association at the Frances P. Bunnelle Foundation Center in Pawleys Island. The award was a bust of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political thinker and historian for whom the society of the United Way’s highest givers is named.

The Houghtons, as usual, were reluctant to accept praise and used the opportunity to call on others to join them.

“We were very honored,” Billie said. “They were very nice to do it.”

Alan added: “We hope to encourage other people to take care of their community.”

They have been practicing what they preach since moving to Pawleys Island from New York City in 1983.

“Giving and living are synonymous,” Alan said in a 1986 newspaper interview that Richard Henry of the Coastal Community Foundation quoted during the United Way’s award presentation. “At the beginning of each year, we plan how much we will give. It’s a joyous experience. Giving is a privilege because you can choose whether you want to do it and how you want to give. For us, it’s pure joy, and — it’s better to share your marbles before you lose them.”

The Houghtons have been instrumental in getting a variety of programs off the ground, including Service Over Self, Miss Ruby’s Kids, Friendship Place and the Georgetown County Family YMCA

“It’s like birthing a baby,” Billie said, “and watching them grow.”

“Those of us fortunate enough,” Alan added, “need to help others get going.”

The Houghtons have made Georgetown County a better place to live, said Amy Brennan, former director of Service Over Self and the YMCA who is now in the development office at The Citadel.

“I was holding SOS out of my house in the 1990s when I met Alan,” Brennan said. “He invested financially and emotionally to the point he and I became attached at the hip. That’s the unique thing: He wants to become personally involved in the things he invests in. He recognized the need for somebody to care for the homeless, and Friendship Place came along with Charlie Ball to run it.

“Alan was always right there, stride by stride, asking good questions and forcing you to be creative. It was the same with the YMCA, investing time and money because he wanted children to learn to swim. He really cares about people. He was always checking on me to make sure I was doing well. All around, Alan Houghton is one of the kindest people I ever met.”

There are limits to every man’s patience, and longtime friend Bishop Fitz Allison remembers the day he saw Alan Houghton reach his.

“We were working at a homeless shelter,” Allison said, “and Alan was cleaning toilets when a young guy started causing trouble. The security guard was overweight and 60-something, so Alan took charge. ‘You behave,’ he said, ‘or Fitz and I will throw you out.’ That guy was bigger than both of us, but he listened.”

Allison knew his buddy could back up his words. Alan’s father had suggested he sign up for the Marine Corps after he had been tossed out of two of New England’s finest prep schools.

Alan tells the story in his book, “A Prodigal Comes Home, Reflections Written Over The Years”. After the Marines, he decided to bag college and go right to work in the family business, Corning Glass. After completing a middle management program at Harvard Business School, he got into the MBA program and graduated — it’s still the only degree he has — and then changed course by becoming a “sometime student” in seminary. In two years he completed the work, passed his ordination exams and was ordained.

“Thus this prodigal son finally got smart and sensitive,” he wrote. “I finally embarked on the career I had been yearning to pursue ever since my early years at Corning. I was thrilled. My earthly father was pleased. And I’m convinced my heavenly Father also welcomed me home and put me to work.”

Alan was rector of the Church of the Heavenly Rest — it’s across from Central Park on Manhattan’s East Side — and Billie was a psychological counselor.

“He was a New York maverick and a pilgrim, having spent decades looking for his right place in life (and being told by some that he was in the wrong place and needed to leave immediately),” Richard Henry of the Coastal Community Foundation said. “She was a cage-rattler from the South and simultaneously a force for civil rights and social justice and also a personal counselor to people needing guidance. Their marriage has been a perfect partnership, each complementing and reinforcing the best qualities of the other.”

Henry said problems like hunger, homelessness and social justice in New York seemed too big to solve. Once the Houghtons got to South Carolina, problems appeared more manageable. They made a charitable plan that included “whatever made our hearts jump out”.

Henry said it’s been thoughtful giving, not willy nilly check writing that has characterized the Houghtons’ generosity.

Pat Strickland, president of the Georgetown County United Way, said the Houghtons have always wanted to make sure their dollars are making a difference.

“They really do,” she said, “look for things that touch their hearts.”

The Bible quote that framed the Houghtons’ philosophy was: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.”

“Billie and I have found that in those years where we have given away more than we thought possible,” Alan wrote in his book, “everything else has fallen into place as well. We have never suffered because we’ve given away ‘too much,’ in fact, we’ve never felt better.

“I know that I have a lot more money than other people, but that really has nothing to do with it. I must share, not hoard, what I do have, with a smile and not a growl. I must remember that those who have the least often give away a lot more percentage-wise than those of us who have the most. I must remember that I need to look in my own mirror and then get on my knees and pull out my checkbook and put my money where my mouth is.”

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