By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
When Fairfield came onboard at the Fifth Ward CDC, whose offices are about a dozen blocks from Pleasant Hill, Clemons invited him to attend weekly services at his church. Fairfield accepted immediately, but he wasn't so sure, a little while later, when the pastor asked him to assist in the ministry.
"I really didn't think I was ready for that," Fairfield says.
Church had been a part of Fairfield's life growing up, though the doctrine made less of an impression than the social engagement. Then, in the summer of 1974, his parents sent him to a Christian camp while they finalized their divorce. Wounded and primed for enlightenment, the spirit enveloped Steve Fairfield. As it turned out, his faith couldn't have blossomed at a better time. That fall, following the divorce, Steve and his sister, Cindy, moved with their mother to Wichita Falls.
Life in far north Texas was quite a bit less comfortable than it had been in west Houston, where, to the eye, life sails along on an even keel. The Fairfields had lived in a big house, with all the creature comforts. So did everyone they knew. Wichita Falls was another matter. The house Steve shared with his mother and Cindy was small. There was no shower, and just one bathroom. Heat was something that, if you were smart, you waited on before getting out of bed in the morning. The entire arrangement was an assault on the concept of privacy.
At age 14, Fairfield might have been expected to resent the abrupt change in station. Instead, he found comfort in the physical closeness he suddenly had with his mother and sister. In Houston, he had had plenty of space, whether he wanted it or not.
Though Presbyterian, Fairfield became a member of a Baptist congregation in Wichita Falls, in whose undertow he discovered the joys of Christian charity. He joined the high school Key Club and visited with disadvantaged children, coached Special Olympics and delivered food to the poor. Wichita Falls appealed to him as well. He liked the rough-around-the-edges atmosphere; he found the young people warmer and more honest.
"It really was a saving experience," Fairfield recalls. "When we lived in Memorial, the kids were kinda pampered. A lot of them were rich, unhappy kids."
As he prepared to graduate from high school, Fairfield was leaning hard toward the ministry. He had made plans to attend Williams College in western Massachusetts, not far from where the last of the great New England Calvinists, Jonathan Edwards, had preached of the indisputable iron will of God.
But it was not yet time.
"At the last minute," he says, "I got scared and stayed here."
Instead, he went to Baylor, and followed another lifelong impulse: his interest in life and thought over the course of time. After graduating with a degree in history, he considered attending law school. And, of course, the pastor's life still beckoned.
While he had the freedom to chose, in reality there was little question he'd leave college and go to work in the family business.
But long before then, Steve Fairfield had been called. If he failed to recognize it, well, that was because the extent to which life is a ministry was still a mystery.
Al put his son in charge of attracting new ventures, which, given the diminished state of Houston's economy in 1983, necessitated traveling outside of the state to find wealthy, willing investors. But it was no secret that times were tough in Texas. Out-of-state banks were wary. Private investors were hardly less cautious, sniffing around for a bit, then bailing out just before closing. Given the evaporating value of oil and real estate, almost any deal would have been considered an accomplishment.
"Our thing had stopped," Al Fairfield says. "We just couldn't do it anymore."
Al Fairfield's is the classic Houston success story. He got into the building trade right out of college in 1958, and within a few short years had his own company. Though Al has developed a fair amount of commercial real estate through the years, his legacy is some 20,000 single-family homes, many of them in the Memorial Village area and priced to sell at $500,000 to $1 million.
He's been, in turn, a self-made dreamer, a visionary and a wily opportunist. The only constant has been optimism and a life-affirming faith in unfettered capitalism. Steve, however, never shared his father's passion for transforming land for fun and profit. During the mid-'80s, it was hard, and more often than not, fruitless work. Each venture that failed confirmed for him a deeply held suspicion: he didn't belong in the family business. Even now, however, he seems unclear on exactly why he felt that way, other than to suggest he came to see the mission as unattainable, at best, and at worst, redundant.
"I felt bad about taking money for doing something that was undoable," he explains.
Though he had little savings and no prospects, Steve quit his father's company in the summer of 1986. Sure of nothing except that he had no desire to cruise in his father's wake, he hit the road, taking in the country by car. The trip was cleansing and a respite before the pilgrimage: he camped and fly fished, visited old friends and mentors. He also thought about leaving Houston for good.