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Jim Collins is editor emeritus of The News-Herald and also serves as executive in residence at Lakeland Community College. His popular weekly column appears each Sunday in Comment in The News-Herald.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Rediscovering the roots of the West End YMCA in Willoughby

By Jim Collins I opened my News-Herald the other morning and the headline that greeted me was semi-stunning. It said the Lake County YMCA is 150 years old. And I wiped my incredulous eyes and said, “Wow! I find that hard to believe.” And just why would I say that? Because it seems like just a couple of days ago that Neil Brown and a couple of others were sitting around a table at Lutz’s Tavern in Painesville trying to come up with some brilliant ideas to commemorate the 100th birthday of the YMCA. “How’s this for a great slogan?” I said. “One hundred years old and going like sixty.” The response was underwhelming. Obviously, that was more than a couple of years ago. My mind began reeling backwards, to the time when I got involved in the Y. It could have been around 1960. A few of my good friends (Bud Brichford, Bob Hardgrove, John Schalois) had urged me to become active in the Y by becoming a member of the board of the West End Y in Willoughby. And so I agreed. It was shortly afterward that I was elected chairman of the board. (There must have been a vacuum in the leadership chain.) I said that role would please me enormously. But I was not going to be chairman of a YMCA that met in an armory. We met in the Willoughby Armory on Grove Avenue at the time. “We are going to have our own building,” I said emphatically, “or you can find someone else to be chairman.” To make a lot of stories much shorter, we decided to test the water to see if the community would support its own YMCA. We liked the responses we received, so we plunged ahead. We hired a company that raised money mainly for YMCAs, and went to work. We enlisted the aid of hundreds of volunteers, had a boatload of meetings, many of the in the gym at South High, and went about trying to raise a million dollars. And we tried hard, for about a year. But we fell well short of our mark. I think we got pledged $648,000. It was not what we had hoped to raise. So a few of the board members said, let’s put it in the bank, let the money earn some interest, and someday we’ll have another campaign and then we can build the Y. Not on your bipee, some of the rest (Bud, Bob, John and others) joined me in saying. People didn’t give us all that money just to put in the bank. Let’s build what we can, we said, open a small West End YMCA the people can be proud of, and then go on and add to it later. So we hired architects, went ahead with drawings, and about a year later built a building. I was chairman of the West End board during the fund-raising and architectural phases. Bill McLaughlin, who was president of the Willoughby-Eastlake School Board, took over as chairman during the construction phase. Congressman Bill Stanton turned the first shovel of dirt at the groundbreaking. We built a handsome building that was actually a swimming pool plus an office. We promised to build the rest later. We held a dedication ceremony, filled the empty pool with wooden folding chairs to seat the audience, and had a priest from St. Justin Martyr Church in Eastlake give the benediction. The West End YMCA was officially off and running! One board member quit because, he said, the Y was nothing but a swimming pool. Everyone else was happy. We had the YMCA we wanted so desperately, and the best was yet to come. There have been many additions to the building over the years. It is a thing of beauty. I just thought I’d put in my two cents worth as the Lake County YMCA celebrated being 150 years old the other day.


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