John Brecher  /  msnbc.com
Terry Gonyon in the kitchen of the eight-bedroom Elkhart home he lost to foreclosure. Gonyon's family, including most of his nine kids, are now crammed into a three-bedroom mobile home.
By Mike Stuckey Senior news editor
msnbc.com
updated 10/15/2009 11:56:35 AM ET 2009-10-15T15:56:35

If you think Terry Gonyon is the kind of guy who has trouble being industrious or working hard, check out the stove he built.

Six-hundred pounds of expertly welded steel, the wood-fired boiler heats 50 gallons of water at a time. He rigged it to warm and circulate the water without being pressurized and so its exterior surfaces get no hotter than the water, about 150 degrees – two keen safety features in a household where most of the family’s nine children were often tumbling about.

Hooked up via old automotive radiators to a forced-air system, it let the Gonyons heat their home through fierce Midwest winters for $40 worth of wood each month instead of $600 or more for natural gas.

Ingenuity like Gonyon’s has been a standard trait of Elkhart residents for so long that outsiders have wondered if there’s something in the water. And the skills it took to design and build the boiler are but a few that the 38-year-old Elkhart native and jack-of-all-trades has used to earn a living since he finished high school.

A drywall man for 20 years with the burly biceps to show for it, he is well-known locally for his ability to patch water damage and match any texture you throw at him. He can tape and finish flat wall until it’s as smooth as a baby’s butt. He can and has built entire houses from the foundation up, framing, wiring, plumbing, you name it. He’s not half bad at wrenching on cars, too.

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“I’m pretty versatile,” he said. “It’s worked out pretty good for me.”

Until now.

All those skills are not worth a Hoosier howdy in a town where nearly one in five people cannot find jobs. His main client base, the well-paid workers in the once-booming local RV industry, has been especially hard hit.

Income falls tenfold
“It’s difficult to go from making $1,500 a week to $150,” which is what has happened to his income over the past two years, Gonyon said. As a result, the family lost its dream home, a 4,000-square-foot-plus, eight-bedroom brick fixer-upper on South Main Street in Elkhart, to foreclosure in March and moved into the 1,400-square-foot, three-bedroom mobile home they now rent in nearby Bristol.

They’re making ends meet, thanks to his wife Desiree’s job as an assistant manager at a sandwich shop, but just barely. “If it wasn’t for her working, we definitely wouldn’t make it,” Gonyon said. “I’m not making enough to pay half the bills.”

While busybody neighbors and some who have followed their story via msnbc.com’s Elkhart Project might cluck their tongues in judgment about all their offspring, “The family is the glue that holds it all together,” Gonyon said. Four of the kids, who range in age from 2 to 18, are his from previous marriages, one is from Desiree’s first marriage, and they have four together. Terry’s oldest daughter will make him a grandfather this summer, he noted, running his fingers through his closely cropped salt and pepper hair.

All that family “glue” is creating plenty of sticky situations in their new, cramped quarters, also shared by Desiree’s mom, who moved in with the family to help take care of the five kids who are with the Gonyons full-time and the others, who are there frequently.

‘No room for privacy or intimacy’
“There’s no room for privacy or intimacy,” said Gonyon. The children are especially disappointed that they can’t keep their bikes at the mobile home and must fetch them from a storage unit in town each time they want to ride.

The family already has weathered a visit from Child Protective Services representatives, acting on a tip that one of the kids was living in a closet. But Gonyon said the inquiry ended when he showed them that it was actually a generous-sized walk-in closet and asked them if the family would be better off living in a homeless shelter.

While Desiree Gonyon is seeing some hopeful signs as business has nearly doubled at her restaurant and fewer patrons are paying for their meals with unemployment debit cards, Terry Gonyon is not so optimistic.

“I’m thinking it’s getting a little worse,” he said. “It’s scary that the phone is not ringing and I have no work for next week or the week after.” Most weeks now he is feeling lucky to get two or three half-day jobs. “I don’t think we’ve seen any benefit at all” locally from federal stimulus dollars, he said.

Meanwhile, Gonyon’s clever water boiler sits gathering dust in his storage space in Elkhart, pulled from the family’s foreclosed house just before the bank’s repo men showed up. He hopes to install it in another home someday, but it’s looking like they will be in the mobile home for a lot longer than the year they had planned on. He takes that philosophically.

“You don’t have control over a whole lot in life,” he said, “so why worry about it?”

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