“It seems like he knows a lot of stuff, he kind of knows a little bit of everything,” 14-year-old Ben Camp says as his dad walks across the house to turn on the AC in the dusty living room. Aaron Copland’s Pandora station plays from a speaker.
“My dad knows how to…” Ben starts to say.
“I know how to find a YouTube video,” Ben’s father, Jon Camp interjects, laughing as the classical music fit for a dramatic movie soundtrack swells in the background.
Dr. Jon Camp calls himself a YouTube apprentice; he’s a communications professor by day and house flipper in his free time. Before YouTube, he couldn’t fix a running toilet.
Over the past six years, Jon, associate professor of communication and program director for the Masters in Organizational Development, channeled his DIY hobby into a second job of sorts. With his company Winfield-Dawson Properties LLC, Jon renovates, invests in and manages rental properties around Abilene in what he describes as a socially responsible way. He’s done it all under the careful instruction of the internet’s DIYers.
“I was the youngest, and my dad was handy,” Jon said, “So by the time I came along, he just hired someone to do the fixing. That’s why I needed YouTube.”
Growing up in Amarillo, Camp didn’t have much experience with handiwork around the house. He now finds himself in the middle of multiple home renovations, including the home he, his wife and two boys – Ben, 13 and Will, 9 – plan to move into in the next few months. He’s brought his sons along as he’s learned the business of renovation.
“Ben knows more about home construction at 13 than I did at 30,” Jon said.
Their new home is a quirky house built in the ‘40s with a few unexpected twists and turns. The refrigerator will barely squeeze into the spot Jon plans for it to go. A set of stairs descends to a tiny basement that will house a washer and dryer. A roundish dining table is set with wrenches, levels, drills, varnishes, scissors, gloves, sandpaper, light bulbs and Gorilla glue, each lying carefully in perfect disarray. At least fourteen paint cans huddle nearby on the red brick floor. It smells like a home improvement store.
Ben picked the room with the round windows because they remind him of Hobbits. Forest green walls adorned with two circular cutouts – his very own Shire. It almost sounds like Frodo and Sam on a quest to Mordor as the classical music floats through the rooms.
“Sometimes it’s country, sometimes it’s classic rock, sometimes it’s NPR talk radio,” Jon said. “But you gotta have music. The kind of work requires a certain kind of music.”
Friday afternoon cleanup is a classical kind of day. Demolition days mean heavy metal. Jon, along with his sons and sometimes friends, has done everything from tearing out cabinets to ripping up carpet.
“It’s a really good experience, working with my dad,” Ben said. “We learn a lot of stuff together, lots of different things.”
And they’ve learned it all in the age of do-it-yourself, do-it-in-your-free-time and do-it-when-school-is-out.
“I get asked if I watch HGTV a lot, and I don’t,” Jon said. “But when I go to my parents – they have cable – I just have to laugh because I know how scripted it is. I live in this world. It doesn’t move that fast. It’s a lot more expensive. But I enjoy watching it and I do get some ideas from time to time.”
In addition to small projects around his family’s home, Jon wanted to fix up other parts of town. In 2010, he took out some savings money and bought a house in bad shape on the south side of Abilene, paying less for his first property than he paid for a used Ford pickup. Spare time became a precious commodity; summers, evenings and weekends meant taking down walls – a dusty, yet welcome break from the emails and administrative tasks of university life where Camp has spent his professional career.
With a degree in English, master of divinity, doctor of ministry, and doctor of philosophy, Camp’s resume is a book-heavy one. His office is a quiet, warmly lit room on the second floor of the Sherrod Communications Building. Books line his shelves, each one snug in its respective home. Like row houses, one after another, they sit quietly. Everything has a place. There are papers to be graded. It doesn’t look like a scene from an active construction site.
Over his ten years teaching at Abilene Christian, he figured out he can’t sit in a classroom or his office all day. Some professors may take to golfing or hunting as a respite from academia, but Jon takes to sledgehammers.
“I love the classroom, I cherish the life of the mind, but I cannot live in my head all the time,” Camp said. “I seem to do better academically when I have some kind of whole-body outlet.”
Early on, after a long day of grading that ended with reporting a bad incident of plagiarism, Jon brought down a hammer on the situation – literally.
“I went over to that house, and the kitchen cabinets were pretty bad,” Jon said. “I was on the fence on whether I’d paint them or tear them out. I got over there with my sledgehammer and just took them out. It felt so good to release all that pent-up frustration.”
Jon’s ultimate satisfaction in home renovation doesn’t come from demolition. Rather, he finds fulfillment by acting as an agent of restoration for communities in Abilene. His properties lie primarily in the College Heights area of town, bordered by N. 1st St., Ambler, Grape and Pine, that chronically deals with housing issues.
“The work of restoration is not just about physical property,” Jon said. “I also want to see social restoration.”
Jon’s been involved with Abilene non-profit Connecting Caring Communities (CCC) to encourage asset-based development of the College Heights neighborhood. This part of town chronically deals with housing issues. Home ownership rates sit at roughly 45 percent, significantly lower than the national average of 63-64 percent.
Aaron Shaver, community coordinator at CCC, has worked with Jon on developing the College Heights neighborhood in a restorative and respectful way. Together, Jon and CCC have laid the groundwork for financial education courses for families in the neighborhood, helping them save money towards their own homes and create a more stable community.
“Jon Camp is the kind of landlord you want in your neighborhood,” Shaver said. “He’s a down-to-earth dreamer. He thinks in very practical terms, but he can think very far out and optimistically about the future.”
An academic by training, a fixer upper by fate and a good neighbor by practice, Jon doesn’t want to cover up problems with paint. He wants to renovate and restore Abilene homes on a deeper level, and others are taking notice.
“I feel more connected to the city, to neighborhoods,” Jon said. “I like to see a house that hasn’t been taken care of and turn it around and sell it to someone who will be a good neighbor.”
Dr. Trey Shirley, instructor of general education, has admired Jon and his work and even dabbled in renovation some himself. Similar to Jon, Shirley finds working with his hands somewhat of a cathartic exercise away from classroom life.
“The real thrill is not in the money, it’s the making,” Shirley said. “At the end of the day, you see your product. That is different than academic work, where you invest a lot in a class but don’t see the dividends for a long time.”
Jon’s first dividends came in the form of a check from his first project. An ACU graduate bought the home, bringing Jon’s two worlds together.
“Working at ACU is kind of a bit of a bubble,” Jon said. “Doing this side of things helps me be connected to another side of Abilene and hopefully be a light; that is my intention. I want to do that in very tangible ways by treating people with respect, property with respect, neighborhoods with respect.”
Ben calls out over Aaron Copland’s music still playing across the house.
“Do you want this board, Dad? What about some of the stuff in here?”
“Let’s leave it in there,” Jon replies, “because we’ll be installing it soon.”