J. Ronald Terwilliger

Class of 2014

  • Chairman Emeritus Trammell Crow Residential Company

It is often easier to give money to charities than it is to give of your time. In fact, usually both are important.

J. Ronald "Ron" Terwilliger was born in Washington, D.C., in 1941, and he grew up in nearby Arlington, Virginia, with his parents and younger brother, Bruce. Neither of his parents attended college. His father worked during the day as a salesman and at night either as a local movie theater manager or as a deputy sheriff.

"Typically, my father would come home from work, take a nap, join us for dinner, and then leave for one of his night jobs, returning home after our bedtime," says Terwilliger. "We had only one car, and he worked two jobs so that my mother could stay home to take care of us. My father was away from home working all of the time, which made it difficult to form a close relationship with him. But I always knew he loved me and would do anything to protect and support me. When I was older and playing sports, my dad tried to attend my games. And later when I played basketball at the U.S. Naval Academy, he would drive more than an hour to Annapolis to see the game. He also listened to the radio broadcast of U.S. Navy basketball games when the team played away."

Terwilliger has particularly fond memories of his mother. "She was the most selfless person I've ever known," he says. "She couldn't do enough for my brother, Bruce, and me. When I was in high school, we spent a lot of time at the Chesapeake Bay catching crabs. My mother would spend all day picking the crabs and cooking for us. She was all about her boys. Unfortunately, she was stricken by Alzheimer disease when she was only 70. We didn't know what was wrong with her at the time. I always wished I'd spent more time with her as an adult and had the presence to say goodbye when she could still understand me. It's one of my great regrets."

Terwilliger describes his youth as "incredibly wholesome." His parents taught him to be honest, competitive, and hard-working. Terwilliger did what was expected of him and stayed out of trouble. "In those days, the '˜bad kids' were the ones who snuck a few sips of beer," he says. "It was a fairly innocent time. We played stickball in the streets and pickup basketball and football. I was very interested in sports throughout my youth."

Most of Terwilliger's neighbors worked for the government or served in the military. "No one had any money," he recalls. "We were all about equal financially. We didn't have much in the way of material possessions, but the things we did have we used and used and used. I never felt like anything was missing in my life."

From the age of 12, Terwilliger began working each summer. One year he worked for a car dealership, mopping floors, emptying trash, and polishing cars. Another year he surveyed supplies for the local school district. He also had a job tracking inventory for a moving company. Terwilliger worked as an usher at the movie theater and laid sod as a landscaper one summer. He saved his hard-earned money and when he was a sophomore in high school, he bought a car with his father, paying half of the cost from his own savings.

Although Terwilliger didn't think much about his future, he assumed his parents expected him to go to college. He enjoyed school and was a successful scholar and competitor. As a senior, he was voted his school's most outstanding athlete and was the captain of his baseball team. He excelled at basketball, and his athletic abilities earned him a sports scholarship to nearby George Washington University. Terwilliger's parents could not afford to send him to college, so his athletic scholarship was the key to his future.

Terwilliger will never forget the day he awoke in his GWU dorm and could not bend over. "It was October 1958, and it was the first time I was aware I had a back problem," he says. "The first doctor my father took me to diagnosed me with spondylolisthesis and said I needed a steel rod in my back. He also said I would never play sports again. I just about died on the spot." Terwilliger's father took him to another doctor for a second opinion. This doctor said a steel rod was unnecessary, but Terwilliger was temporarily suspended from his athletic activities. After about two months of rest, he resumed his normal activities. "I still have this displacement of vertebra in my back," he says, "but I have learned to live with it."

Terwilliger accepted a recruitment offer from the U.S. Naval Academy. While there, he returned to his two favorite sports, eventually becoming an Academic All American in basketball and an All East in baseball. He ranked in the top 7 percent of his class and, upon graduation in 1963, was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Navy. He served five years on active duty, including several years on a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine.

After Terwilliger resigned from the Navy in 1968, he earned his MBA from the Harvard Graduate School of Business, where he was elected a Baker Scholar. "Harvard scared me to death at first," he says. "All the other students seemed so smart, and I thought I was going to flunk out. But I found that with hard work and perseverance I was able to compete academically."

In 1970, Terwilliger accepted a job in real estate with the Sea Pines Company in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Three years later, he was named president of Sea Pines Plantation, a private residential development. In 1975, he left to become CFO at the Beck Group, a Dallas-based general contracting firm.

In 1978, Trammell Crow Residential Company (TCR) offered him a partnership in Atlanta. "Accepting that offer was a big decision for me," says Terwilliger. "I would have to take a major pay cut, but in exchange for a 40 percent ownership in the company. If the Trammell Crow family did well financially, I would too. The scary part for me was giving up my job security. At this point, I was married with two young daughters. I was 38 years old, and security meant a lot to me, but I had not been feeling challenged in my current position. My dad always told me he regretted never taking a chance at a job change. I just decided that if I was ever going to take a chance and be an entrepreneur, then at 38, the time was now. It was one of the most important and difficult decisions I ever made."

Five years after his arrival at TCR, Terwilliger became CEO. Under his leadership, TCR became a national residential real estate company and the nation's largest developer of multifamily housing for several decades. After 30 years at the helm, he retired. "I loved my work at Trammell Crow," he recalls. "I loved going to work each day. I had excellent partners and great friends, and I loved the real estate industry. I believe that people who are happy and love what they are doing give more of themselves to others, and they make valuable contributions to society. I always advise young people to follow their dreams, whether it's in the arts, history, or whatever it is that makes them happy."

Terwilliger went on to serve as chairman emeritus of TCR and non-executive chairman of Terwilliger Pappas Multifamily Partners which focuses on rental apartment development in the Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville and Raleigh/Durham markets.

Terwilliger has served as chairman and trustee of the Urban Land Institute; chairman emeritus of the Wharton Real Estate Center; and chairman of the International Board of Directors of Habitat for Humanity, Habitat for Humanity's Global Development Council, the "I Have a Dream" Foundation, the Enterprise Community Partners Board of Trustees. He has also served on the boards of the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation, the Urban Institute, and Colony Starwood Homes.

Terwilliger's philanthropic contributions have included a $5 million gift to establish the ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing. His $5 million gift to the Enterprise Foundation created the Enterprise Terwilliger Fund, targeted to create 2,000 affordable homes annually. He has pledged and contributed more than $20 million to the U.S. Naval Academy. His $100 million legacy gift to Habitat for Humanity International helped 60,000 families access improved housing conditions.

"When I'm gone, I would rather be known for my philanthropy than for my success in real estate," says Terwilliger. "My philosophy is that those of us who have had good fortune in life have a responsibility to give back. For me, success is related to having a positive effect on others, having your life matter in ways beyond your personal joys and satisfactions. Being able to affect others through leadership, by being a role model, by being supportive, and by what you contribute financially, is how I define success."

Terwilliger was inducted into the National Association of Homebuilder's Hall of Fame in 2008. In 2009, he was honored by the National Housing Conference with the Housing Leader of the Year Award and by the U.S. Naval Academy as a Distinguished Graduate for his lifetime commitment to service, personal character, and distinguished contributions to the U.S. In 2012, Terwilliger was honored with the National Patriotism Award by the National Foundation of Patriotism. Terwilliger was the recipient of the 2013 ULI J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development.

In 2014, Terwilliger established the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America's Families to recalibrate federal housing policy to more effectively address our nation's critical affordable housing challenges and to meet the housing needs of future generations.