Central YMCA Celebrates 100 Years of Memories

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Dick Bennett remembers the day in September 1977 when he was meeting with staff and volunteers in the YMCA auditorium, “when a young person came bolting in the door and said, ‘Sheet & Tube is closing.’ ”

Bennett, the retired CEO of the Youngstown YMCA, was about to launch the annual membership campaign. “Someone had said a few days before that he was ‘optimistically encouraged’ we could [meet our goal]. So that’s the phrase I used and our campaign was successful. We kept going and we kept improving.”

Today, decades since the steel collapse that left the Central YMCA downtown’s sole beacon, Bennett is equally enthusiastic about the $5 million building renovation set to begin in February. “With the downtown changing again, back to a more positive situation, the improvements here will really be an asset to the Y,” he said.

But on Sunday, as Bennett reconnected with the dozens of YMCA members past and present who attended the centennial open house for the building at 17 N. Champion St., the future was the footnote to generations of memories.

Photographs, newspaper clippings and memorabilia greeted visitors, carefully collected and arranged in a room by the main entrance by Al Leonhart, a member of the YMCA maintenance staff also known as the Y’s historian.

“Because of Al, we have the most exceptional historical artifacts of any YMCA in the country,” Bennett said.

“Look at this,” exclaimed Mahoning County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Christian to her husband Bob, both longtime members, as she pointed to items in the collection.

Among them: an old ashtray with the YMCA logo, the Olympic Torch a member carried in 1984 on its way to the Olympics in Los Angeles, and clippings from an event in February 1983 when Joe Paterno was the featured speaker as the Youngstown association celebrated its 100th birthday.

The 100-year-old building, the third to house the YMCA, was dedicated by former President William Howard Taft in November 1915. It has undergone renovations and expansions, consistently adapting to changing times like the Central Y will once again with the upcoming remodeling project.

“It’s amazing how many youth and adults have passed through these doors over the last 100 years,” said Mike Shaffer, director of the Central Branch.

“It’s old home week for me,” said Bob Doyle, who retired 20 years ago as branch director. “I’m on cloud nine seeing some of these kids who I remember coming for gym-and-swim. And they’re certainly not kids anymore!”

One visitor, a man in his 90s confined to a wheelchair, told how he came to the Y at age 17, lived there, was given a job and played an instrument with the fledgling Youngstown orchestra when its first notes sounded at the Y.

Like hundreds of young men, he took advantage of the YMCA’s reading room, which grew into the Youngstown Law School and became the foundation for what today is Youngstown State University. Vocational education was also provided in the early days of the YMCA and the most sought after classes taught the English language to immigrants who came here to work in the steel mills.

“When the Y began here in the 1880s,” observed Tim Hilk, CEO, “a big part of our mission was to provide a wholesome place for men as they were moving here during the transformation of America from the farms to the industrial cities. In Youngstown, that was one of the YMCA’s roles, and it wasn’t just about providing a bed. We provided spiritual support and education.”

This fall the YMCA began a partnership with the United Way of Youngstown and Mahoning Valley  to provide after-school mentoring for children attending the Youngstown Community School. “We’re stepping into the classroom once again, with kids and families, making sure kids are getting their homework done with mom and dad,” Hilk said. “As we continue to think about the Y’s impact in our community, it’s going to be with these types of programs.”

Among the memorabilia displayed at the open house were membership lists from the YMCA Junior Leaders Club that displayed the names of boys who today hold positions of prominence in the community. Many remain YMCA members and participate as volunteers in leadership roles.

Sunday in the auditorium, Three Stooges movies were shown as volunteers passed out cherry cokes, hot dogs and popcorn – the menu for 91 years on Saturdays as the Junior Leaders Club gathered.

“This building, like no other one I can think of, is a hub for downtown Youngstown every single day,” said Mayor John McNally during a brief ceremony. “I am amazed at the sheer volume of traffic this building brings to downtown Youngstown every day.”

McNally noted how Hilk and branch director Shaffer visited his office last week to request the city’s assistance in helping to fund the  $5 million renovation of the building. “We’re looking forward to being a very active partner in the continued growth of the YMCA in downtown Youngstown,” the mayor promised.

Hilk said members would see drawings “in the 30  to 45 days” that show how the remodeled branch will look. “We’re going to be able to continue to grow for the next 25 years,” he said.

“What endures is the Y’s mission. We’re truly trying to reach out and make life better – spirit, mind and body.”

Pictured: Dick Bennett at YMCA Central Branch centennial open house.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.