HOTSEAT- Stoner's zen: Building Goodness turns 10

Jack Stoner

Jack Stoner could have just bought a flashy car. Instead, he went to Haiti in 1997 for his midlife crisis and volunteered his building skills for a rural development project. 

From that mission sprang Building Goodness Foundation, which turns 10 this year. The organization has sponsored more than 50 international trips, almost as many domestic efforts, and become one of the most do-gooding groups around, all stemming from the midlife malaise of this co-founder of upscale building contractor Alexander/Nicholson.

"I got really dissatisfied that we live, and we go to work and build things for people, and go home," he says. "Is this all it's about, and then we die?"

On that first trip to Haiti, Stone realized he had a skill set that was really useful to other nonprofits. "If you're in education," explains Stoner, "you don't necessarily know how to build schools or community centers– things that we do." Likewise, doctors don't necessarily know how to build medical centers, but some physicians heard about Building Goodness and asked for help designing and building one. 

Stoner got his start in building when he dropped out of architecture school at UVA in the '70s and apprenticed to a craftsman for three years. "I like working with my hands," he discovered. 

"Everyone gets into the building business by mistake," he observes. "The momentum carries you through." With two years invested in college, Stoner did go back to get his degree, but his UVA diploma reads English, not architecture.

With college roommate Michael Cernik, the two started Alexander/Nicholson.

"The name is my middle name and my partner's middle name," explains Stoner. "We thought we could charge more than Stoner/Cernik."

The company has done historical restorations, work at Tandem school, the Amtrak station, and the downtown ACAC, which is one of Stoner's favorites. On the residential end, the work is designed at a high level of workmanship. "I really am drawn to craftsmanship," confesses Stoner. 

He isn't embarrassed to say he lives for today. He cites the example of his father, who planned for retirement while doing work he didn't enjoy– and then died of prostate cancer. 

 After that first trip to Haiti, Stoner told his business partner Cernik and another friend, Howard Pape, they had to do it, and the three founded Building Goodness. Over the past 10 years, it's grown into one of Charlottesville's best-known nonprofits, with a staff, and more than 800 volunteers who've put in over 60,000 hours. Who had ever heard of Pearlington, Mississippi, before Building Goodness adopted it after Hurricane Katrina? Now just about everyone in town who can hold a hammer has been there.

Not all their missions are sunshine and light. Stoner recalls one trip to Haiti to build kays– Creole for houses– when a hurricane hit while his crew was camping. Worst was the waiting and trying to stay dry. "We did get the project completed, but we hiked out soaking wet," he remembers.

Despite the hard work, one response is common for those who sign up to build goodness, says Stoner: "Wow, that was the most meaningful thing we've ever done."

Age: 54

Why here? I came to UVA. in 1973, started working for A-school professors after graduation, and forgot to leave.

What's worst about living here? Ticks and chiggers

Favorite hangout? Downtown Mall

Most overrated virtue? Consistency

People would be surprised to know: I write poetry.

What would you change about yourself? I would like to listen better.

Proudest accomplishment? Being a part of Building Goodness Foundation.

People find most annoying about you: I don't hear as well as I used to.

Whom do you admire? Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer   

Favorite book? A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

Subject that causes you to rant? Radical religious fundamentalism

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Communication technology

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Communication technology

What do you drive? Toyota pickup truck

In your car CD player right now: Springsteen's new album

Next journey? Haiti

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Lassoed my brother off his bicycle 

Regret: Didn't become a ski bum for a while before starting a business

Favorite comfort food: Warm chocolate anything

Always in your refrigerator: Hot sauce

Must-see TV: 24

Describe a perfect day. Mid 80s, breeze, sun shining, fishing.

Walter Mitty fantasy: Skiing in a Warren Miller video

Who'd play you in the movie? Dennis Quaid

Most embarrassing moment? Skinny dipping with my significant other on Ocracoke when numerous trucks full of fishermen pulled up and parked between us and our clothes. You can only stay in the water so long, and fishermen are a patient lot.

Best advice you ever got? Don't just do something, stand there.

Favorite bumper sticker? The problems we face will not be solved by the minds that created them.