If you venture into Old Town Marblehead, you’ll see charming colonial reproductions along Elm and Pond streets. These communities were designed and developed by builder Warren Curtis Sawyer in the mid-1960s. The architecture and clustering of neighborhoods create an interior view of early America and feel like part of history.
The Sawyer family may be guided by the past, but their warmth, generosity and seriousness in providing quality affordable housing to low- and middle-income families and seniors across the country is visionary and couldn’t be more timely or relevant. Always committed to service and fairness, Sawyer put his expertise in real estate development to the benefit of less privileged people who needed vital and decent housing.
Since 1993, Sawyer and his daughter, Deborah Sawyer Nutter, have co-directed the Caleb Group, a nonprofit (501)(c)(3) holding company that buys properties and converts them into single-family homes, often with a full complementary residential services and community participation.
The Caleb Group is creative and sophisticated in assessing local needs at each of its sites. The range of housing, from single-family homes to apartment buildings to seniors’ complexes, is a mosaic of responses to the unique characteristics of each situation. For example, in one community in Maine, Caleb created family units. While working in Lynn with the Housing Authority, Caleb provided housing based on individuals’ ability to pay for housing. The common thread is that low to middle income people need and deserve fair and safe housing. The Sawyers have moved from high-end to non-profit practices by observing time and time again the hardships faced by the average worker and the enormous toll that housing costs take on each month’s paycheck.
It’s no surprise that Warren and his family are at the heart of affordable housing. Warren graduated from Lawrence High School in 1949, then went to a Christian College in Wheaton, Illinois. After two years, he transferred to Gordon College, closer to home. Its underlying creed is based on religious doctrine with a fierce devotion to action. Although he had always been imbued with this belief in caring for others, Warren couldn’t help but smile when he recalled that as a young soldier in Korea, part of his mission in the military police was as Marilyn Monroe’s bodyguard!
Joan Bartram Sawyer is as Swampscott as it gets. Born in the old Mountain Avenue Laying Hospital, she and her two brothers, David of Swampscott and Paul of Middleton, grew up at Hadley School and graduated from Swampscott High, Joan in 1951. She went to Colby Junior College in New London, New Hampshire. Married for 66 years, the Swayers have four daughters and one son: Deb Nutter, Sandy Keyes, Heidi Whear, Doug Sawyer and Holly Brauner. The couple met while skating in Alton Bay and knew early on that they would have an unconventional life together.
In 1969, Warren and Joan wanted to volunteer for the Peace Corps. With five young children in tow, the organization decided they would be better off as staff and invited Warren to lead North India. The clan lived in New Deli for two years and moved to Tehran. From an early age, children discovered the world and how other cultures live. They spoke Farsi and ate exotic dishes and made exciting friends. They also gained a perspective on privilege versus poverty and thus developed a broad understanding of human needs and ingenuity.
Upon returning overseas, Warren earned her master’s degree in public administration at Harvard, and the pieces began to fit together. Warren has also served on the board of Habitat International and worked with President Jimmy Carter. Behind every development is Warren’s mission-driven belief. Adapting to each community, some Caleb clusters support health centres, others social workers and still others schools. Low-income tax credits are sold to investors, so Caleb is mortgage-free, allowing them to keep rents reasonable and increased. Caleb helps potential residents get Section 8 supplements and direct tax credits so their liability never exceeds 30% of their income.
Whether in Lewiston, Maine, where Caleb has helped hundreds of Somali immigrants settle, or in Ohio, where Caleb has rehabilitated more than 100 units, the nonprofit organization leverages funds federal and works closely with local government, zoning laws and community enthusiasm.
Deb’s son, Matthew Nutter Sawyer, is a second-generation Caleb employee in charge of facilities. Over the years, Joan has created and distributed a scholarship for single mothers. She has provided over $200,000 in rewards to women. Joan has a long volunteer portfolio in Swampscott and on the North Shore. Her contributions to Lynn Home for Young Women and Girls’ Inc. are legendary. She has a proud history of successes to her credit.
The Sawyers recognize that homelessness is on the rise and they are determined to be part of the solution. How fitting that Warren and Deb chose Caleb as the name for their nonprofit. After all, Caleb in the Bible advised the tribe of Judah to pursue Canaan, and Caleb in “Moby Dick” represents optimism.
Warren’s leadership had a ripple effect on housing and the community. He was a tireless trendsetter. A resident of Frost Lane, where he built a beautiful alcove of reproductions, recently told me that even after 50 years the construction and fittings of his house are still of the highest standard of design and construction. Turning his ability to enjoy financial security into his initial business, he used all the tools in his quiver to help others. Sawyer’s legacy is one of mission-driven results underscored by selflessness and kindness.
— Ina Resnikoff is a resident of Swampscott. She writes “Ina’s Insights” for the reporter and can be reached at [email protected]