John Frank Houston has spent most of his adult life working toward becoming a millionaire. And at first, that meant exactly what it sounds like.
But a passing encounter with a district attorney after Houston – now a member of the Roanoke City Council – had a day in court planted a seed in him that led to him becoming a millionaire of a different kind.
And most folks who achieve the accomplishment of being a millionaire go right to work on making even more millions. But for Houston, his attitude was just the opposite. He gained his millions, and last week, on the eve of thanksgiving day, he gave his millions away.
Houston hasn’t spent the past 30 years accumulating wealth. Lord knows he has tried. But he has spent that time gathering aluminum cans and the cherished pop tabs on the top of them that can be donated to charity.
To be fair, the exact number of tabs that he has collected over the years may never be known. But what is known is that he loaded up 66 5-gallon buckets full of the tabs into his truck last Wednesday and delivered them to Ronald McDonald House in Birmingham.
He tried to split his millions between two different locations. He initially took 32 to Birmingham and was going to take the remainder to Columbus, Ga. But the location in Columbus said they did not have the facilities to process that large of a donation, so Houston – determined to spread his wealth – went back to Birmingham to drop off the remaining 34 buckets.
It all started after that fateful day in court all those years ago. As Houston tells the story, “I got in trouble with DHR for child support. After facing the judge, I left the building.” Outside he had a conversation with the district attorney at the time.
“She was meaner than a rattlesnake,” Houston said. “She followed me out of the court room. When we got outside she told me the best thing for me to do is get outside on the road and pick up cans.”
The words may not have had a well-meaning tone when they were delivered, but Houston took those words and turned them into a mission.
“Believe it or not, I took the DA’s advice,” he said.
While working as a janitor at his church and as a truck driver for the city of Roanoke, Houston would pluck cans from the trash and put them into a basket he set up on his truck.
He worked multiple jobs because in his mind he wanted to truly become a millionaire. As in, make a million dollars. But a visit to scripture – Deuteronomy 8:18 to be exact – led him to change his ambitions.
That verse, in part, reads, “And you shall remember the Lord your God for it is He who gives you the power to get wealth.”
“I realized that becoming a millionaire for the money was personal gain,” Houston explained. “I was called to be a servant, helping others.”
For years Houston has run his own lawn care business, Houston’s Lawn and Bus Service. Driving around town to different yards afforded him the opportunity to continue collecting his chosen treasure.
When he filled out the form for his donation at Ronald McDonald House last week, the form asked for his organization. He wrote Houston’s Lawn and Bus Service.
That same form is gives you an opportunity to name people who you are donating in honor of. For Houston it was an old friend, Vale Shaw Bills, who passed away on November 23, 2016 after a fight with cancer.
Six years later – to the day – Houston drove to make his donation in her honor.
He also mentioned his daughter Salandra Burden Gilbert and her husband Otis Gilbert, who passed away earlier this year. And he named his daughter Chandra Williams, who is a cancer survivor.
But Houston will be the first to tell you that he did not collect all the can and all the tabs single-handedly. His efforts have been well known throughout Randolph County, and many businesses and individuals made donations to Houston’s millions.
And while his 66 buckets full of tabs have been delivered, don’t expect Houston to stop chasing that dream of once again becoming a millionaire.