A “REAL” YMCA, AT LAST 1963–1972
AFTER SO MANY difficult years, Orange County was now close to attaining a thriving ~ YMCA. But this was not fully apparent in the early 1960s. The area was still reeling from Martin Company layoffs in 1961 that had affected so many residents, and a hard freeze in 1962 that wiped out the year’s citrus crop.
Bill Phillips, newly hired as program director at the YMCA, described the Orlando he found as resembling a sleepy cow town, still washing down its streets at night. Even so, change was clearly underway. Major cross-state highways and new schools were being constructed as the area ‘s population climbed toward a quarter of a million. Soon Martin would again bring new talent and related industries to the area, and investors would begin buying up real estate mostly on expectations as the aerospace industry went full throttle in the Space Age.
Orlando turned to marketing its tourist attractions aggressively; that industry would soon grow to proportions that no one could envision. The city landed a prize in 1963 when it was chosen as the site for Florida Technological University. The “space university” now the University of Central Florida – would burnish the area’s standing as a high-tech mecca. The metropolitan area held great promise, and the 1960s would prove to be a singular era, one in which everything was transformed. The Orange County YMCA was no exception – it was in for its biggest decade ever.
The Association board was ready to act on the $1.5 million long-range expansion plan it had approved in 1961. Its first stage would comprise a building with administrative offices, club rooms and member lounges, craft and game rooms, and a kitchen and coffee shop. The second phase would add a gymnasium, swimming pool, male and female lockers, handball courts, exercise rooms, and health club facilities.
However, two other steps envisioned in the plan-the purchase of land in Ocala Forest and a revenue-producing, 120-room dormitory – were never realized. By the 1960s the Orlando YMCA residence rooms were housing mostly “older gentlemen,” Phillips explained. “We looked at the Y’s future in Orlando, and its goals,” he added, “and the need [for a residence] was not there. Orlando had a lot of housing alternatives.”
The younger YMCA leaders especially disliked the idea of including a residence in a new edifice and roundly rejected it, which represented a major shift in direction for the Orange County Association. Eliminating the dormitory would lower the building’s cost significantly. The $1.5 million expansion plan was quietly scaled back.
REFINING THE PLAN
BEV LAWS BROUGHT fresh ideas and implemented them swiftly. Of the four quadrants of Orlando, only one offered very little YMCA programming and had no dedicated staff at the time-the Southwest. One of Laws’ first moves was to solidify the budding branch system by merging the Southwest and Southeast branches into the South branch.
Shortly after Laws arrived, Fred Kersey departed, and Terry Gwinn took the helm of the Northeast branch and Caravan Camp. Northwest Director Bill Phillips assumed the direction of Camp Wewa. Guy Weeks moved on to the Lakeland (FL) YMCA and J. Thurston Martin came from Clearwater, FL to take his place at the South branch and with Indian Guides. The YMCA’s operating budget at this time was $165,000.
Laws found an existing architectural rendering for a YMCA building in Orlando that would have cost $850,000 to $1 million to build, he estimated. He suggested modifying the plan and constructing one branch facility in addition to the comprehensive building planned for Mills Avenue. “I felt Orlando was ready for at least one branch,” said the executive, who knew the power of suburban operations from his years in Montgomery.
The Northeast operation in Winter Park had the highest potential, Laws believed, since it could also attract families from Maitland and South Seminole County who wouldn’t travel to a YMCA in downtown Orlando. His prior experience with branch operations convinced the board to shift gears and plan for a Northeast branch facility as well as the comprehensive building.
Robert Murphy, a former Association director and the project’s architect, made trips with Laws to examine new Y facilities in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. The Spartanburg (SC) YMCA came closest to the Orange County’s functional and programmatic desires, Laws recalled. A modified version could be built in Orlando for $650,000, they estimated, and another $200,000 would allow for a partial facility in Winter Park.
SELECTING A CAMPAIGN CHIEF
To RAISE SUCH an amount, a dynamic building fund chairman was needed. Board President John Sterchi was due for another term, but Laws and his fellow directors prevailed upon him to chair the capital effort instead and let someone else head the board. “This proved an extremely wise decision in every respect,” Laws wrote in his memoir.
John Whitaker Sterchi solidly supported a “real” YMCA in the community. The hotel the Association then occupied, he felt, was a “liability.” Sterchi had moved to Orlando in 1950 from Tennessee, to establish his family’s furniture enterprise there. He soon met Linton Allen’s daughter Elizabeth (known as Happy) at the First Presbyterian Church, and they married in 1951. By 1958, his father-in-law had persuaded Sterchi to leave the furniture business and join him at First National Bank, as a vice president.
Sterchi’s appointment to lead the Association’s building campaign was a brilliant one. His passion for the YMCA, kindled in his youth in Knoxville, and his leadership ability, coupled with the respect of his peers and his superb connections, helped him recruit other energetic young leaders to the drive. Frank Hubbard agreed to be vice chairman for Orlando and W J. (Jack) Bowen, president of Florida Gas Transmission Company, signed on as vice chairman for the Winter Park campaign.
Both Hubbard and Bowen served with Sterchi and Allen on the First National Bank board. Bowen also recruited his employee Eugene Daniel Ruffier to the YMCA effort. Ruffier’s father-in-law was William (Billy) Dial, a powerful attorney in Orlando and the state, and a close colleague of Allen’s at First National Bank (A Trio of Community Builders, p. 81). Dave Finch, then head of Merrill Lynch, and Dick McPherson completed this inner circle.
Ruffier, a West Virginia native and a relative newcomer to town, realized he was joining a great crowd. “These guys were pillars of the community,” he observed in a 2003 interview. The building drive appealed to these young family men, Ruffier explained: “There was nothing serving the youth, or anything-family-oriented. We needed a place for kids to go.” Around this time the Orange County Association began referring to its future facilities as “Family-Center Buildings.” Their stated aim was to help families build spiritual and physical well-being.
Sterchi was aggressive and intent on setting the Association’s sights high. He had easily obtained board agreement on the campaign target of $850,000. But Ketchum, again acting as the outside fund-raising consultant, would not agree to go above $650,000. “Based on Florida’s history of fund raising for youth and nonprofits, coupled with Orlando’s history of YMCA failures, Ketchum did not want to sign a contract for more than that amount,” Laws recalled. The consultant contended that the remaining $200,000 for the two buildings could be raised at a later date.
The charismatic chairman wasn’t about to agree to a lesser public goal, Laws recalled. Sterchi proceeded to sign the contract with Ketchum for the lower figure but declared to his board, “We are going to raise at least $850,000.” As Laws recalled, the young leader favored certain catch-phrases to fire up his troops; he often told them, “You’ve got to snap, crackle, and pop.”
MAKING IT HAPPEN
SNAP, CRACKLE AND pop they did. The campaign leaders decided that a sizeable part of the goal-one-fourth, up front-should be in hand before the Association took its campaign public. Various citizens were approached in the initial gifts phase, chaired by Joseph M. Croson, to raise the first $250,000.
The largest single gift, of $100,000, came from R. Dolph Keene, whose family had built a fortune on citrus and cattle. Keene’s son-in-law was YMCA Director Dick McPherson, who with his wife Dottie prevailed on Keene to make the lead gift as a challenge grant. When Keene’s gift was publicly announced in 1965, the old-timer recalled that he had not been active in the YMCA building drive of 1926 because “he was trying to figure how to pay losses he took in the boom of ’25.”
At the campaign’s public kickoff luncheon in September 1964, at the First Presbyterian Church, the other big news was of 10 local individuals or firms that had also given $25,000 each, more than matching the Keene family’s challenge gift. The $350,000 for the silent campaign gave them a tremendous boost, said Laws: “Optimism ran rampant.”
Linton Allen, Sterchi’s father-in-law, was behind the “10 for 25” Club, as it was called. The contributors included the T. G. Lee Dairy; Cliff Hodgson, chairman of Minute Maid Groves Corporation; A. G. Bush, founder and former chairman of Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (now 3M Corporation), who had retired in Winter Park; Gary J. McDonald of Tupperware Home Parties; Martin Andersen of the Sentinel; Ralph H. Kennedy, a retiree at 41 who then founded Tandy Snacks; Albion C. Buckley of Winter Park; First Federal Savings and Loan Association; First National Bank and affiliates, and Allen himself, the bank’s chairman emeritus . Kennedy later added $5,000 to his gift.
Allen also helped in garnering other sizeable donations. The esteemed civic leader recruited four Orlando pioneers and longtime YMCA supporters-Judge Charles Oscar Andrews Jr., Judge Donald A. Cheney, S. Kendrick Guernsey and Dr. Karl Lehmann -to pool their individual donations in a $100,000 gift.
Judge Andrews, a former representative in the State Legislature and son of a former U.S. Senator from Florida, was Hi-Y president at Orlando High School in 1928 and 1929, when the yearbook “Who’s Who” listed him as the Most Dependable and Most Serious senior. Judge Cheney, of course, had kept the Association alive during the Depression and had largely dedicated his career to youth. Dr. Lehmann, then manager of the Lake County Chamber of Commerce, had previously headed Orlando’s Chamber. Ken Guernsey was chairman of Gulf Life in Jacksonville, Florida’s largest insurance company, and served Rotary International as president in 1947-1948.
These four men had been pivotal in amassing $800,000 in pledges for the never-built YMCA in 1926, and recounted their tales at a luncheon that Allen hosted. They remembered the ‘20s debacle all too well. Judge Andrews had chaired a scholastic campaign committee: “I was an eighth-grade student at Orlando Junior High School, and the campaign victory meeting was in a temporary tabernacle with sawdust all over the floor,” he told the Sentinel. Guernsey, then working in real estate and insurance in Orlando, admitted that “the main thing on my mind at that time was getting married in just a few weeks [to Edythe Green].”
The “pioneers” formed an advisory council for the drive and pledged to prevail this time. Their council also included longtime County Circuit Judge Frank Smith, whose donation had put the 1926 building drive over goal, and Oliver P. Swope, the YMCA’s president in that era. Judge Smith had served unopposed on the bench since 1934; Swope, a key leader in relief efforts during the Depression, had just retired as president of First Federal Savings and Loan, at age 88.
The Sentinel took note of their optimistic attitude: “Today, in different circumstances and with more than 10 times the population [ of Orlando in 1926], the men at yesterday’s luncheon agreed, the YMCA dreams will be realized.”
In yet another effort, “Mr. Allen, in his southern gentleman’s way, said ‘I’ll start a grandfathers’ club’,” Frank Hubbard recalled. Allen tapped Holman R. Cloud and Lloyd Gahr to co-chair a drive for donations from other well-established men in the community. The contributing granddads included Don Evans, F. Monroe Alleman, George D. Allen, George S. Bradshaw, Clarence M. Gay, Russell S. Hughes, Harold E. Marsolf, Judge W A. Pattishall, Asher Peter, Wilson Sanders, Judge Frank A. Smith and Homer Stivers.
The campaign for the branch building in Winter Park was an integral part of the drive. The town north of Orlando was then primarily a retirement and winter community for the affluent, Laws explained, and many residents maintained their primary allegiances elsewhere. However, one of them stepped up in a major way to help the local YMCA effort-Gerald F. (Jerry) Banks, who had started the Commerce Bank in Winter Park. Other companies joined in, including Florida Gas and its president, Jack Bowen; the Winter Park Federal Savings and Loan, with a $6,000 gift; and Simpson Motors of Orlando, Inc. with nearly $4,200, including pledges from employee payroll deductions.
Sterchi’s leadership, coupled with his father-in-law Linton Allen ‘s efforts, not only gave the public campaign the needed momentum to build a real YMCA in Orange County but secured the Association’s first substantial corporate support ever.
SENTINEL STIRS THE POT
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL and Evening Star, still locally owned, helped enormously to inspire public support for the new YMCA buildings. In 1965, the papers ran a series of nine testimonials from prominent local citizens. The first, by Gary McDonald, an executive at Tupperware, noted that the YMCA was already serving more than 12,000 young people. McDonald echoed a current community concern: “Through its family center buildings,” he wrote, the Association could help young folks “to choose the building of body, mind and spirit, rather than gang name, leather jacket, and switchblade [knife].”
The second testimonial came from a local urologist, Dr. William R. Daniel, who wrote of physicians’ concerns about community health and preventive medicine. “One of the strongest means of preventing premature aging is a program of reasonable diet and an adequate regime of physical activity,” he declared. “Most of us lead sedentary lives or lives that are filled with rushing about, but this hardly fulfils the criteria for proper maintenance of physical (or mental) well being.”
Dr. Daniel’s words mirrored a growing unease on the heels of President John F. Kennedy’s jarring report on the nation’s physical fitness. “Most people lack the determination to stay with such programs when confined to an individual effort at home,” the physician contended. “If recent physical fitness tests teach us anything it is that American children are not getting enough of the proper physical training. This poor conditioning is compounded in adulthood. There is no age at which appropriate physical training should be omitted from one’s daily life.”
In another Sentinel testimonial, G. Thomas Willey, of Martin Company Orlando, described his half-century relationship with the YMCA that began in his youth in England. “There, in those days, the organization placed strong emphasis on the ‘C’ in its name, for the first YMCAs were essentially started as Bible classes in the city of London,” he wrote. “The importance of the traditional Y triangle of body, mind and spirit was underscored.” In Orlando, Willey stated, the need for “wholesome programs of all sorts for our young people -and equally for our adults-will be met adequately only if we have an adequate YMCA program.”
Following the Sentinel series, the public responded generously more than 1,000 individuals came through with donations to the building fund. Despite Ketchum’s earlier qualms, the campaign was wildly successful. “The Ketchum representative bet me a steak dinner we wouldn’t raise $850,000,” Bev Laws noted in his memoir. “Katie and I enjoyed a great dinner at his expense, thanks to John Sterchi and his great leadership.” Later that year, the Orlando Sentinel and Evening Star were sold to the Tribune Company of Chicago; Martin Andersen remained as editor and publisher only through 1966. The YMCA timing seemed providential. Only a truly local booster would have used his newspaper’s pages as effectively as Andersen did to endorse a community cause.
A HOWLING SUCCESS
THE BUILDING DRIVE bested its goal by more than $71,000. An Evening Star editorial on April 24, 1965 reflected the general sense of elation: “Orlando, Winter Park, and all of Orange County did themselves proud by zooming through the ceiling with the Orange County Y’s Building Fund Campaign … The public responded with a whopping $921,097 for a big bonus margin of victory.”
This total represented the largest amount raised by any youth organization in the Sunshine State, as well as for youth in the local area. The accolades echoed the euphoria that had followed the 1926 YMCA campaign, which had tallied more than $800,000 in pledges. “This near-million dollars not only sets a new record for Orange County, it also makes history in the state of Florida,” the Evening Star editorialized on the 1965 triumph, adding that it was “certainly one of the most successful YMCA drives in the country.” Unlike 1926, campaign promises would be kept this time.
Bev Laws later deemed the campaign “a howling success, exceeding both official and unofficial goals,” and praised its leader: “I cannot say too much about John Sterchi and the excitement that he brought to the development of the ‘Y.’ … From my perspective, there was no one individual during my tenure that could compare with John’s enthusiasm, commitment, and determination.”
The Association threw a victory luncheon at First Presbyterian Church. Its minister, Dr. John Anderson, by then the YMCA’s vice president, acted as host, and Rev. Vernon Qgigley of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church was the luncheon speaker. Ladies of the church prepared the special orange pie they had also served at the major gifts division kickoff luncheon. Sterchi also encouraged further contributions: “This current capital fund drive probably will be the only major building effort of the Orange County YMCA during the lifetime of our present generation,” he told the Sentinel.
REALIZING THE BUILDINGS
CONSTRUCTION ON THE Mills Avenue building got underway with a groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremony on January 13, 1966, replete with pomp and circumstance. The Boone High School band played as distinguished guests arrived, including Orlando Mayor Bob Carr; Winter Park Mayor Allen Trovillion, who was general contractor on the downtown building; F. B. (Skinny) Surguine, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners; and Bob Murphy, the building’s architect. Dave Finch, YMCA vice president, acted as master of ceremonies.
The campaign’s vice chairmen, Frank Hubbard and Jack Bowen, were on hand to cut two ribbons, each representing a building. John Sterchi opened a door in the middle of the construction area, “symbolic of the open door of the future,” the Sentinel reported. Filing into the “building of the future,” and forming a living YMCA triangle, were 140 representatives of the Association’s Four Front Programs for youth: Indian Guides, Gra-Y, Tri-Gra-Y, Junior Hi-Y and Tri Hi-Y, Senior Hi-Y and Tri Hi-Y.
Nearly a year after ground was broken, the downtown YMCA building opened on January 8, 1967. The two-story “ultramodern” structure featured “new ‘old’ brick,” as the Sentinel described the exterior, and overall it dazzled Orlando. John Sterchi presented Mayor Carr with the first membership card for the new Central Branch, as more than 1,000 spectators looked on. In his dedicatory remarks (Dedicating the Downtown YMCA, p. 86), Dr. John Anderson declared this new YMCA the most modern in the state.
Sentinel-Star Business Editor Jottie Palmer, who previewed the “beautiful” new YMCA, wrote about it on New Year’s Day 1967. “You have to tour the spacious interior to truly appreciate all the tremendous features that have been woven into the 40,000 square feet of functional floor space,” the editor raved, adding that the “magnificent” heated pool “brings on a Johnny Weissmuller complex.” Palmer also took note of a whirlpool bath. “Body-conditioning” facilities included health, exercise, and steam rooms, sauna and ultraviolet lamps, and men’s and women’s showers and lockers. Outdoors, behind the building, were a football field and two baseball diamonds.
The YMCAs large multi-purpose hall, with meeting space for 185, could be divided in half and used variously for classes, clubrooms, crafts, and dancing. An adjoining kitchen could turn out meals for 125. The spacious adult lounge offered “relaxation facilities” for card games, chess and pool, and rollaway doors revealed an exterior sun patio.
Frank Hubbard had donated the services of his construction company, then at work on projects at Canaveral and Orlando’s new International Airport, to pave the YMCA’s athletic fields and parking lot. Spaces for 135 cars would accommodate a mobile membership.
Despite intermittent rain, the turnout for the dedication was much larger than the Association had anticipated. In charge of the ceremony was YMCA President Paul K. McKenney Jr., head of Repco Inc., an electronics maker of police radio phones. When Bev Laws spoke, he emphasized that the 300-plus members of Orange County’s youth programs would be welcome to use the new facilities. The Colonial High School Choraliers closed the ceremony with the hymn “Bless This House.”
John Sterchi had predicted that this YMCA would be the only major one built in his generation’s lifetime, but he would be proven wrong many times over as the Association built again and again in years to come. Sadly, however, he was right about his own life. The victorious campaign chairman, elder of First Presbyterian Church, YMCA board member and Hi-Y and Tri-Hi-Y Man of the Year in 1965 would succumb suddenly and tragically at age 40 to an aneurism, in February 1968.
Charlie Wadsworth, in his “Hush Puppies” column in the Sentinel following Sterchi’s death, encapsulated the local sentiment: “I don’t know of anyone who has had more impact on the community in more different ways than John Sterchi had.” The city would long recall the YMCA drive he led as the largest and most successful ever held in Orlando. The downtown building he had championed became his official legacy when it was renamed “The John Sterchi Memorial Building” in 1969. A trust was created in his name to provide an annual scholarship to a Hi-Y or Tri-Hi-Y member. The first recipients, Sandy Rex Jr. and Gayle Anderson, came from Boone High School.
ADDING THE SECOND YMCA
ONCE THE CAMPAIGN ended, Association leaders scouted properties for the Northeast Branch building. A major assist from Daniel M. Hunter-a YMCA director from 1962-1966 and Winter Park city commissioner who became its mayor in 1968-helped secure the site. As Laws recalled, Hunter initially proposed Showalter Field, a site the Association could have at no cost. Laws and other directors felt that the property, south of Winter Park, was too close to downtown Orlando where the comprehensive YMCA would be built. They preferred to locate it further north, closer to the growing areas of Maitland and South Seminole County.
The directors kept looking, and located a property on Horatio Avenue in Maitland. Though closer to the desired service area, Laws recalled, it would have been somewhat costly, drawing on funds meant for facility construction. He didn’t need to worry: When Hunter heard that a Maitland address was under consideration, “within three hours Dan used his influence to provide us the site that we really wanted, on Lakemont Avenue in a beautiful, ideally located spot to the east of Winter Park,” Laws remembered. Hunter ‘s astute gift, given to the Association at no cost, kept the YMCA in his city and was easily accessible for Maitland and South Seminole residents.
Planning for the Winter Park building began immediately after the Central Branch opened. The groundbreaking and dedication on November 4, 1966 was on a smaller scale but not lacking in fanfare. With Jack Bowen as master of ceremonies, a large bonfire was lit by the KeeWayWabun Nation, as the YMCA Indian Guide tribes in northeast Orange County were known, to signify anticipated completion in May 196 7. (The Y-Indian Guides program also comprised three other “nations” in Orange County-the Mandan, Seminole, and Chule.)
The Sorensen-Fletcher Construction Company built a 14,000- square-foot structure in Winter Park to accommodate 3,000 people. The municipality would continue to operate Lakemont Park, where the building was situated; public playground equipment was moved opposite the YMCA. To give Maitland and South Seminole residents a sense of ownership as well, the Winter Park operation was officially named the Northeast Branch.
In the end, the Northeast facility that opened on June 15 was constructed for $300,000. The Central Branch building came in at $750,000, including $50,000 in furnishings and $60,000 in architect ‘s fees and fund-raising costs. At last, the Orange County YMCA had accomplished the goal that eluded it for eight decades- it could boast not just one but two fully-equipped, comprehensive, real YMCA buildings.
BY THE MID-1960s, Central Florida was booming, as it added new educational facilities, new industries, and an ever-expanding population. Cape Kennedy, as Canaveral was now known, took on increased importance locally as the nation stepped up its space program, anticipating the 1969 moon launch.
The year 1965, however, brought the real show-stopper: entertainment magnate Walt Disney had settled on Florida as the location for a second theme park, and he liked what he saw in Orlando. A property just 15 miles south of the city, where the nearly compete Interstate-4 would cross the Florida Turnpike, seemed ideal. The Disney organization bought some 43 square miles-twice the size of Manhattan Island – for little more than $ 5 million. Disney “pulled off in secret one of the most spectacular land deals of all time,” author Joy Wallace Dickinson noted in Orlando: City of Dreams.
The mere announcement of Walt Disney World plans caused local real estate values to skyrocket again. Money began pouring in from outside Florida to build speculative amenities, everything from hotels and condominiums to restaurants, gas stations, and other tourist necessities. In this heady atmosphere, the two new YMCA buildings opened their doors to the community.
After the Central Branch opened downtown in 1967, and before the drive for memberships could even begin, 400 people signed up in the first eight days. Annual fees were attractively modest: $20 for youth, $24 for students ages 15 and up, $30 for young men ages 19 to 24 who were not full-time students, $40 for men ages 25 and up; and $ 9 5 and up for a Health Club membership. Women members paid $30. For $84 per year, entire families could enjoy all privileges but the Health Club.
When the membership campaign officially started on February 13-five weeks after the downtown opening-the Central Branch already counted 1,267 new individual members toward its goal of 3,000. A February 20, 1967 Sentinel editorial, “Investment with Dividends,” remarked on how unusual and noteworthy it was for an organization to approach the halfway mark before membership solicitation had begun, and predicted the “magnificent new YMCA” would easily achieve its first-year goal since applications were “pouring in” from Seminole and Brevard counties as well as Orange. Halfway through the drive, 1,833 members had signed on.
“It’s not surprising when you consider that the YMCA offers one of those rare opportunities for families to get together for fun and fitness, too,” the Sentinel editorialized. “We can’t think of any investment with greater dividends.”
The Northeast Branch at Winter Park had similar success; with an initial goal of 400 new members, it was halfway there with 218 before the facility opened. By the day of its dedication ceremony, family memberships topped 300, and reached 460 by early July. The rolls filled so fast that memberships had to be closed after only six weeks.
The new YMCAs’ programs for families included special swimming nights, pre-school swim classes, and co-ed volleyball. Physical fitness and skill-training programs featured gymnastics, basketball, and classes like “Slimnastics” at the Central Branch, and “Relax and Rebound” in Winter Park. By 1969 the downtown branch was offering adults and youth a “new scientific physical fitness testing program” that measured endurance, strength, flexibility, power, balance, body weight, and proportions of bone muscle and fat, and provided comparisons to American norms. This analysis allowed the YMCA’s physical director to tailor a fitness program to each individual.
Youth activities addressed boys’ and girls’ physical, mental, and spiritual needs, all aiming to develop high ideals. A Corner Room in the Central Branch offered counseling, tutoring, youth employment guidance, and medical and psychological referrals to any individual or family who needed help. The Association also introduced the program of Smart Set International Inc., a drug-prevention effort for junior and senior high students, and another for fifth and sixth graders. For older youth, a university professor offered coaching in “How to Study in College.”
In addition to the family emphasis, the new Central YMCA courted businessmen. The “basic,” men’s-only Health Club membership, for $ 9 5 per year, offered a separate dressing room, kit lockers, a special exercise room, steam and sauna baths, an ultraviolet room, and whirlpool bath. The “regular” Health Club membership, for$ 135, came with a weekly massage by “qualified masseurs,” while the $175 “deluxe ” category featured twice weekly massages. The Health Club also offered a separate room for napping, where tired businessmen could stop and catch 40 winks at midday.
Bill Phillips was named to head the Central Branch when the new building opened, and as assistant general secretary of the Association was also Laws’ right-hand man. “It was a real thrill, the first YMCA in that town,” Phillips recalled in an interview. “We built that YMCA on the family.” In 1968, however, Phillips got a compelling offer to head the Association in his native Pensacola, and left Orlando after six years there. James Stooke succeeded him as Central Branch executive.
WANTED: MORE BUILDINGS
THE SOUTH BRANCH, heartened by the downtown and Winter Park successes, also wanted a facility. The area south of Orlando’s main business district was growing rapidly, thanks to booming employment at the nearby Martin-Marietta plant. By 1968, the South Branch was serving 1,600 young people in area schools and other borrowed spaces. Director J. Thurston Martin, Laws recalled, was “largely responsible for the somewhat surprising and aggressive growth” of this branch.
South branch volunteer H. Clay Johnson Jr., a project director at Martin-Marietta, told the Sentinel that a recent survey “overwhelmingly” showed that additional family recreational facilities were the “No. 1 need for the Pine Castle -Conway area.”
Each branch had its own board of managers who bore responsibility for local fund raising. The South Branch board, led by realtor George M. (Rock) Shearouse, decided not to wait for a county-wide YMCA campaign to develop a facility. The local board acquired a six-acre site west of Oak Ridge High School with a small farmhouse that could be used for offices and meeting rooms. The YMCA could also share adjacent Little League fields, and a parking lot with a neighboring church, on weekdays. The Bessie Ziegler Trust, a local charitable fund, financed the land purchase and pool construction, with low-interest loans totaling more than $46,000.
Maxwell Wells Jr., an attorney and long-time Pine Castle resident, was named to chair a fund drive and mobilized some 125 campaign captains and workers. Charles E. LeGette, president of South Orlando First National Bank, and Charles Gatling of Florida Power Corporation, led the initial and primary gifts drive. The South Branch set a goal of 500 family memberships and $150,000 for the first phase of construction – an outdoor, heated Olympic-size swimming pool, two tennis courts, and locker rooms. More than $45,000 was pledged in the drive’s first week. Lead gifts of $5,000 each came from Mrs. J. E. Partin, LeGette’s bank, and Gatling’s company. Overall, the branch realized $185,000 in pledges.
The modest South Orlando family center at 814 W Oak Ridge Road achieved a major aim: a physical presence and identity for the YMCA in that area. Rev. A. R. Fagan of the Delaney Street Baptist Church, and vice president of the branch board, led the dedication on December 1, 1968. The South Branch hoped to erect a general-purpose building there with a youth center, meeting rooms, dances, other activities, and general office space. A third phase would add a gymnasium, indoor pool, and additional tennis courts. However, it would be some years before either phase would be realized.
The Northwest Branch also wanted a building. It was supervising school-based programs in its own area as well as in the former Southwest sector, which still had a relatively small population. But prospects for a YMCA there were less promising. Although many metro board leaders lived in nearby College Park, Laws discouraged construction of a facility there because most homes were accessible to the branch downtown. He felt that a freestanding Northwest YMCA would court failure.
At this time, the Orange County YMCA also ventured into Osceola County, by sponsoring a swimming program in Kissimmee. The Association had an interest in finding a site in that town, Laws recalled, since it knew that the advent of Disney World would increase demands for service in its surrounding area.
YOUTH PROGRAMS MULTIPLY
THE ASSOCIATION’S PROGRAMS in schools and other locations throughout Orange County continued seamlessly after the new YMCAs opened. Youth programs included Gra-Y for boys in grades 4- 6, Junior Hi-Y and Tri-Hi -Y for junior high youngsters, and Senior Hi-Y and Tri-Hi-Y for high school students. Hi-Y and Tri-Hi-Y Clubs focused on community service, conducting basket drives and working with disabled children. Its members were active in the annual Florida YMCA Youth Legislature in Tallahassee: The Orange County Association’s participation grew from 44 members in 1961 to 100 a decade later.
“Everything was based on schools,” Phillips recalled of this time, when the Four-Front Clubs were beginning to wane nationally as the new YMCA Youth and Government program was taking hold. “We had great cooperation and very supportive people in the school administration.”
The Indian Guides program for boys in grades 1-3 nearly tripled its numbers from 1963 to 1966, and the municipal auditorium was used for new-member induction ceremonies. An Indian Maiden program, for girls in grades 1-3 and their fathers, began in the early 19 70s. Daughters and dads wore Indian costumes while playing games, doing crafts, and camping. Later, an Indian Princess program was added for upper elementary girls.
For adults, however, the emphasis was changing. The Y’s Men and Menettes Clubs continued into the late 1960s, then lost momentum and faded out. Laws did not discourage that decline, he recalled in an interview. Where those Clubs once fulfilled a distinct purpose, key members of Y’s Men were now gravitating to other civic service clubs. Laws also phased out the waning young adult programs, Over-18 and Young Adult Club Spouseless, preferring to focus the Association on programs for youth.
Laws thought the Industrial Management Club, with members from the corporate world, held greater potential for the Association. But when the Coca-Cola Company acquired Minute Maid, it relocated many of the managers who had been Club leaders to Houston. Coupled with another large round of layoffs at Martin, the Club effectively ended its lifespan in the late 1960s.
KEEPING CAMPFIRES GOING
CAMP WEWA WAS perennially popular for summer sleep-away camping, due to its program and traditions. It even drew children whose parents could well afford to send them to camps outside Florida. “That was the thing you had to do in summertime; kids would go for two weeks,” recalled Wallace C. Hughes, Metro Board chairman in 1974, whose children were among the campers at Wewa. Its three lakes were used for water-skiing, swimming, boating, and canoeing, while land-based activities included archery, riflery, trampoline, tennis, and other games. Camp Wewa had a distinctive Native-American theme. Phillips, the camp’s director, later recalled that “I was called Chief Phillips, and it was a dear term for me. I dressed up in a headdress for campfires, and we gave awards to the ‘Little Chiefs.'”
Quite a few Orlando teenagers, both boys and girl s, spent formative summers at Camp Wewa and went on to become civic leaders. Glenda Evans Hood, for one, advanced from camper to counselor-in-training (CIT) and finally counselor. She went on to be mayor of Orlando and in 2003, Florida’s secretary of state. Rollins and Orlando Junior College students still provided leadership for YMCA youth groups and camps. One of them, U.S. Senator Mel Martinez, a former U.S. housing secretary and Orange County chairman, worked with the Gra-Y program at Silver Lake Elementary School, and at Wewa during the summer. Mel also recruited his brother Ralph, who later became a prominent attorney, to the camp as a CIT.
The camp accommodated 200 campers and 40 staff at each session. Most kids who wanted to be able to attend, since financial aid was available for needier campers. Wadsworth’s Sentinel column often helped the YMCA raise that money, Laws recalled in his memoir: “One good story in ‘Hush Puppies’ would just about solve our scholarship needs at the time.” Camp Wewa was well loved, “even though we didn’t have the best facilities,” said Laws. Phillips recalled important support from Minute Maid’s Ohlert. The camp had no freezer, so the company let the camp keep frozen foods in its locker. “We went over to get them every day,” Phillips said, adding “They were a huge YMCA supporter.” He also recalled with humor some occasional forays by campers who snatched watermelons from neighboring farms.
With some extraordinary volunteer efforts, the Association kept Wewa going and improved its facilities. Winter Park architect John E. Dye and the North Orlando Kiwanis Club helped enormously with restoration, raising most of the $60,000 needed for a new recreational and dining building in 1969. The Kinoro dining hall they built replaced the existing Round House, and that old, rotary-shaped structure became a craft shop.
Dye, who had designed a dining hall, chapel, and staff housing for the Pensacola YMCA camp, enlisted fellow Kiwanians to help out at Wewa. They hauled two-by-fours and other materials there on weekends, pouring foundations and putting up prefabricated cabins until all the old ones were replaced. “John would later trim out and finish up,” Caravan Camp sent 32 young men as far north as Canada in 1969. recalled Laws. “He was a terrific guy.” For his labors of love, John Dye was named Orange County YMCA Man of the Year in 19 71; he also joined the Association board.
To enlarge the YMCA’s camping program, the staff added more day camp sites. Laws noted in particular the assistance of the Orange County government and Commissioner Paul Pickett: “They gave us opportunities, such as day camp sites on lakefronts.” In turn, Laws said, the YMCA hired lifeguards for the public swimming areas: “We were the county’s recreation department.”
Caravan Camp kept its journeys going, often far beyond Florida, with teachers or principals acting as escorts. One group that ventured all the way to Canada witnessed an opening session of parliament in Ottawa, where members were outfitted in wigs. Caravan was relatively inexpensive, and most kids paid their own way. They never resorted to a hotel, Phillips said proudly. Happy Sterchi recalled, in an interview, that when her sons were Caravan Campers, they slept at a YMCA in New York City. Later, junior high girls got their own Caravan Camp.
The YMCA added a week-long sailing camp on a schooner in the Caribbean for 20 junior high boys, but at $245 the skin-diving, snorkeling, and spear-fishing trips proved too expensive to serve a broad group. To Laws’ regret, there was no provision for scholarships. The Windjammer trip was permanently dry-docked after just two years, although Caravan Camp kept rolling until the early 1980s.
FITNESS COMES ON STRONG
THE NEW YMCA buildings made possible a wide world of physical programs in Orange County. “Fitness was just beginning to come on as a vital part of the YMCA,” Laws said. “There was a great effort to get good people to start a strong adult fitness program, and to get kids to be aware of the dangers of drugs.”
For youth, the Association put an emphasis on competitive sports, with basketball clinics for boys in grades 4- 12. In the fall, Gra-Y boys in grades 3- 6 played football, moving into basketball or soccer in winter and track in the spring. By 1970 – 1971 these YMCA sports had 2,000 participants. “We tried to incorporate everything you would have in a Y,” Laws said.
Shortly after the building opened downtown, the Association reached out to African -American students in all county schools, inviting them to get involved. In particular the YMCA organized a concert ed effort to get youth to participate in team sports across racial lines, a gesture that was greatly welcomed in the black community. “It was a major deal,” observed YMCA board member and community leader Geraldine Thompson.
Rufus C. Brooks, former principal of Eccleston Elementary School and Orange County Schools supervisor, was among the creator s and coaches of an integrated sports initiative at the Central Branch in 1968. It was “a tremendous planning group,” Brooks recalled in a 2004 interview. Many of the members were military veterans like himself. The YMCA invited students from all county schools to the downtown branch to play football and basketball on racially mixed teams.
“When they got there, there was a lot of apprehension,” Brooks said, but “after the first week of play, it died away.” Three banks First National, Florida National and Orlando State-financed the team uniforms, which elementary students proudly wore to school, he recalled. Track meets were added, too, where the future Olympian Michele Finn excelled. “The YMCA was the first one to spread good will, especially during racially troubled days,” said Brooks. A former president of the Orange County NAACP chapter, Brooks was elected to the YMCA board in 19 71, becoming its first black director.
With its new swimming pools, the Association expanded the YMC.Ns nationally known graded swim programs in the area. Kids who acquired designated skills could achieve Tadpole, Minnow, and Shark levels. The Orange County YMCA pools were fully scheduled with recreational swimming, fitness swims and competitions, and a free annual “Learn to Swim” campaign, open to the public and co-sponsored by the Sentinel.
The YMCA’s outreach also encompassed the less fortunate when the Central Branch hosted youngsters from the county Parental and Juvenile Homes for twice-weekly swims, in separate sessions for girls and boys. Laws observed that few of these children knew how to swim, so the Association undertook to teach them.
KEEPING THE FOCUS ON YOUTH
YMCAs NATIONWIDE WERE going headlong into adult fitness, which proved to be a solid revenue earner-especially as income from residences diminished. That trend had a downside, however, because it shifted emphasis away from youth activities. By the early 1960s, the Four-Front programs were being phased out in some parts of the county. Baby Boom teens, by now a formidable part of the population, had dramatically different interests that were not met in these traditional YMCA offerings.
The existence of Hi-Y and Tri-Hi-Y programs came into question at an annual Christian Values youth conference in the late 1960s at the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly in North Carolina. They were the subject of heated discussions-and were nearly eliminated. Bill Phillips, then at the Pensacola Association, was upset enough by the direction of that conference that he left the YMCA and worked as a Methodist church youth director for several years.
”A lot of Y s used money as the excuse to stop teen work, but I could always raise the easiest money to send a teen to camp,” Phillips recalled in an interview. The Hi-Y had played a key part in his own life: Phillips had been inspired to become a YMCA director at a Hi-Y conference in his youth, when its leaders asked him to consider the career.
The Orange County YMCA resisted the elimination of high school-based programs. Its service to 5,700 youth in 1963 nearly doubled in three years, to 11,000. Laws protected the Hi-Y and Tri-Hi-Y, even though the clubs required subsidy. “I recognized it as something we needed to stay in to relate to high-school boys and girls,” he recalled. “The problem was that it was not revenue producing.” Laws realized, however, that the Four-Front programs created a long-term gratitude and loyalty to the YMCA, so he kept them going as best he could: ”Adults didn’t have the same loyalty as kids,” he observed.
While the Orange County YMCA had depicted itself in 1963 as “the great middle class instin1tion … in this area,” it strived to offer its programs and services to deserving youngsters in need. Laws mounted annual support campaigns to keep youth programs “within easy reach,” and to offer scholarships to children from less advantaged families, which accounted for one third of the youth it served.
Local corporations supported this effort. Tupperware executive Gary McDonald helped to launch the first Partner-of-Youth fund drive, Laws recalled. They chose a Chinese theme. Bill Phillips pulled a rickshaw down Orange Avenue with board member Jerry Banks riding inside. The kickoff breakfast featured a promotional film produced by Martin Company’s Ed Cottrell, with Will Bowen, 8-year-old son of Jack Bowen, as the star of the show set at Camp Wewa.
The YMCA did not hesitate to ask its new neighbor, Walt Disney World, for support. The Association had proposed that the entertainment firm build a YMCA dormitory with fitness and recreation facilities at Disney World to help recruit young workers, but nothing came of it, Laws recalled. Soon after its opening, however, Disney initiated a $25,000 community service awards program, and the YMCA applied for consideration. Organizations were required to follow Disney’s rules: “We had to convey creatively our mission and goals,” Laws recalled. “We took the Y triangle and created a design with words.”
The Disney organization invited YMCA President Alfred P. West and Robert E. Smith, Association president-elect, to a banquet, complete with a mariachi band. There, as 20 other community organizations were given $1,000 each, the Orange County Association received Disney’s Outstanding Achievement Award of $5,000 for exceptional community service. “That was their way of making a contribution,” Laws recalled. The YMCA used the funds to provide summer camping for 270 underprivileged children, an expanded drug prevention program, and supervised sports for 14- to 16-year-old youth at Drew High School, in a disadvantaged area between Ocoee and Apopka.
In another change to the YMCNs annual appeal, Laws raised the expected giving levels from the typical increments of $10, $15, and $25 to higher donations of $100 and up by introducing a Century Club. Due to these varied efforts, the Four-Front programs remained robust in much of Orange County through the early 1970s.
WOMEN’S NEW ROLES
THE ORA GE COUNTY YMCA did not share the entrenched history of many older YMCAs that had served only men for many years. By 1963, women and girls comprised fully 40 percent of the local membership. In Orlando, the YMCA had served both boys and girls for decades. Since it had no swim-and-gym facility until the late 1960s, female members would not encroach on previously all-male terrain. Nationally, the story was different. Although the Association had given its blessing in the 1930s for women to be members and staff leaders, many YMCAs still retained a men’s club atmosphere.
People who had experienced the YMCA elsewhere discovered a different kind of organization in Orange County. “I grew up in the Y in Huntington, West Virginia, where we swam naked and played basketball,” said former board member Dan Ruffier. “The Y was a guy thing at first.” As the first Central Branch executive, Bill Phillips saw numerous Canadian winter visitors coming to use the new YMCA. “One shed his clothes in the locker room and went out nude to the pool, where an elderly ladies’ class was in session,” said Phillips. The surprised visitor beat a hasty retreat.
Nevertheless, there were inequities in the downtown YMCA’s membership structure. Women could only participate in scheduled exercise, gymnastics, and aquatic programs, and a “Social Service Section.” Men paid an additional $10 for membership, giving them greater access to the pool, gym, weight room, handball courts, and game room. The higher-priced, luxurious Health Club amenities were exclusively for men.
In addition, men still largely ran the show in setting Association policies, long-time women members reported in interviews for this history. Women joined the YMCA board starting in the 19 50s, but their function was largely secretarial. As former board member and secretary Happy Sterchi, widow of John Sterchi, recalled, “They took seriously the ‘M’ in ‘YMCA.'” Barbara Cruciger Roper, a venerable YMCA volunteer, told of looking at camps in 196 7 for her seven year- old daughter, who wanted to attend Wewa. “I didn’t see too many alligators in the pool, so I registered her there for two weeks,” said Roper, whose four children all became Wewa campers. ”After I had done all the work of getting her there, they asked Bert [Roper’s husband] to join the Wewa board. I was furious- I was the one who had gone to the camp! He said, ‘I have a candidate – my wife.’ A couple of months later they called me.”
From the camp board of managers Barbara Roper became a delegate to the Metro YMCA board, bringing a new level of leadership Becky Roper wrote to her parents from Camp Wewa in 1967. to what was a largely male bastion where “women were tolerated, but not given much opportunity,” she recalled.
During this time, YMCA programs nationwide were undergoing significant changes, to adapt to profound upheaval in American society. As mothers streamed into the paid work force and more families required after-school child care, the youth-oriented YMCA could offer excellent programs. Gradually, women grew in numbers and influence at the Orange County YMCA, as paid staff and policy volunteers, and their views and expertise became increasingly valuable and recognized.
In a sign of things to come, a female volunteer won the Orange County YMCA’s “Man of the Year” award for outstanding service to youth in 1970. The selection of Phyllis Johnson, a biology and physiology teacher at Oak Ridge High School and sponsor of its Tri-Hi-Y Club, made national news. Two years later, two women were again among the nominees for the prize, which clung to its traditional name for many years despite the inclusion of women.
INCLUSIVE, NOT EXCLUSIVE
THE CHANGING ROLES of women were not the only societal shifts impacting the YMCA, both locally and nationally. Evolving demographics and the desire for greater inclusiveness led the Association to moderate its Christian requirement for membership.
To be sure, Bible study and religiously oriented activities still had their place in the YMCA. An Orange County membership brochure from this era described it as “your family’s chance for Christian fellowship in a wholesome environment.” But Protestant church membership was no longer mandatory to join the YMCA, and religion was referred to more subtly than before. Instead of professions of faith, the values of Christianity were becoming the Association’s watchword.
Bev Laws told of a local rabbi who asked for a meeting when the new building opened downtown, to make sure that the Y wasn’t going to exclude non-Christian members. Bill Phillips, the branch executive, remembered the rabbi’s response: “I can believe in the teachings, just not in Jesus Christ.”
Laws recalled that “we had a great meeting. I told him we were ‘inclusively, not exclusively Christian.’ I convinced him we were not trying to convert people, but we believed that kids should grow in spirit, mind, and body in their own religion. He became our first Jewish member.”
The executive had more difficulty winning over a Catholic priest in West Orlando. At that time, Laws observed, some people still thought the YMCA wanted to proselytize people into joining Protestant churches. It was not unusual, he recalled, for Catholics to register at YMCAs under assumed names, so as not to risk disapproval of their parish priests. By the late 1960s and early 19 70s, however, this was no longer an issue for Catholics in Orlando.
Public school integration had just begun when Laws came to the city. The process was slow; a local family filed a lawsuit in 1962 to force all Orange County schools to integrate. It took eight years to succeed, and was only resolved by a federal order to desegregate all schools in Florida. In January 1970, in the midst of the school year, massive teacher reassignments and busing of students began in Orlando and elsewhere. The reassignments hastened the demise of Hi-Y programs at the traditionally black Jones High School, as its faculty sponsors were transferred to other schools.
The Orange County YMCA had made a decision in the early 1960s not to withdraw its programs from any integrated school. Its first desegregated program, in 1962, was the Gra-Y at Rock Creek Elementary School near Colonial Drive. “Certain individuals [on the YMCA board] gave leadership to integration,” observed Phillips, citing in particular Dr. John Anderson and Jack Bowen. When the new Central Branch opened, Rev. Anderson spoke eloquently to the issue, as the Sentinel reported: “We must gain new respect for each other … the ‘mind, body and spirit ‘ of all in the community will be bettered by this institution.’ ”
As Phillips observed in an interview, “The Y was going to integrate – there was a lot of discussion, but it was a foregone conclusion that we were going to do it. We didn’t drag our feet. We already had black kids attending camp.”
Geraldine Thompson, whose three children were YMCA campers, said in an interview that Camp Wewa had been important in reaching out to local African Americans. Thompson herself, an Orlando resident since 19 70 and founder of the Association to Preserve African American Society, History, and Tradition, would learn to swim at the downtown YMCA in 1973. Like so many black people who were barred from segregated pools as children, she acquired this skill only in her adult years.
Laws, who at this time served on a national YMCA interracial committee, said he directly sought opportunities for the YMCA to serve Orlando’s African-American community. At the beginning of his tenure, the Association’s programs were still predomii1antly in white communities, and white children and families comprised the participant. In one initiative, the YMCA obtained an abandoned bowlii1g alley in Washington Shores, a black neighborhood south west of town where the Rotary Club had sponsored a sub-division in 1964 for African -American housing, and where Dr. Philip Phillips gave land for a first hospital for the black community.
Laws attempted to start a YMCA program in Washington Shores, in conjunction with a local physician, Dr. James R. Smith, but it never took hold. Financing was inadequate to create something new, Laws stated, and there were staffing problems. Subsequently, Dr. Smith established a recreation center in that community with other African-American professionals, independent of the YMCA.
In 1972, the Orange County Association got another opportunity to serve an African-American community, when a vacant school building near the predominantly black neighborhood of Winter Garden, in West Orange County, became available to the YMCA. The school had a gym, which the Association used to initiate a physical program. This time the effort did succeed, and it paved the way for a future branch.
BY 1972, ORANGE County’s membership rolls were nearly triple those of 1965, having grown to 35,000 from 13,000. The Association now had the largest membership among Florida YMCAs, and ranked among the 20 strongest in the southeast. The Orange County Association had expanded considerably to meet a growing demand for its programs, and was sponsoring clubs and activities in 30 communities, using churches, loaned spaces and outdoor sites in addition to its own buildings.
With success came pressure. Already outgrowing its recently built facilities, the Association was “operating under a staggering burden,” Laws noted. Without adequate space to house them, its branch operations were hobbled. The new YMCAs were also inadequate for the anticipated local population growth: The Chamber of Commerce foresaw Metropolitan Orlando adding 100,000 new residents by 1975.
The Association estimated it needed to raise $1.2 million to develop or expand its four branch operations-Central, Northwest, Northeast, and South. The Northwest Branch still operated only in churches and other borrowed sites, and desperately needed a community building with a swimming pool, lockers, and showers. Most South Branch programs were held out-of-doors; adult fitness classes and children’s activities took place in a parking lot or under an oak tree and were often rained out. That branch needed a fully equipped gym and a social center with game and clubrooms.
Northeast required a multipurpose community room for high school club meetings and informal education courses, and rooms for games, arts, and crafts. In fact, construction was already underway to enlarge the YMCA in Winter Park. At the Central Branch, an oval outdoor running track with an all-weather surface was being added.
To expand its operations and retire debt, the Association launched another capital campaign in 1972. The downtown facility had cost $750,000 to build and Winter Park $300,000, both over budget, leaving the Association with a debt of some $241,000.
The “Finish the Job” completion fund drive was intended to finance needed additions and pay off obligations. Its stated goal was $780,000, pragmatically lowered from an initial needs estimate of $1.2 million. ‘The Y must complete the job it started seven years ago,” Laws wrote in a solicitation brochure.
The appeal to the community focused on its youth. YMCA President Alfred West and Robert Smith, general chairman of the Completion Fund drive, endorsed the “overwhelming value” of their Association, “guiding young people into wholesome and rewarding pursuits; strengthening family bonds; instilling in youth an appreciation of God and country.” Smith, a father of eight, told the Sentinel that the YMCA’s emphasis on the “family as a unit” could help resolve “generation gaps. We’re doing work for children before they get into trouble,” he declared.
Metro board members Happy Sterchi and Dan Ruffier cochaired an advance gifts section, “to finish what John Sterchi started in 1965,” as Campaign Chairman Smith put it. Their effort raised about $219,000. Another Metro board member, Dr. Edward R. Koger, who also chaired the Central Branch board, led the major gifts division. The campaign advisory board included such YMCA stalwarts as Dave Finch, Frank Hubbard, Jack Bowen, Jerry Banks, Dick McPherson, Ralph Kennedy, and Charles Hollaway.
Despite such capable volunteers, and with Ketchum again acting as fund -raising counsel, the “Finish the Job” effort floundered, Laws recalled. At the end of the public campaign the amount pledged was only $536,000. After campaign costs were paid, only $456,000 would be realized. There were several contributing factors, Laws said. Other local agencies were running concurrent campaigns, with the United Appeal’s approval, and the YMCA’s cultivation, preparation, and organization had not been adequate.
Bob Smith cited as the most significant factor that the YMCA completion drive lacked a compelling rallying cause, despite its service to youth and family. It proved much harder to enlist supporters to retire debt than to create something new. There was no large pacesetting donor, nor had the metro and branch boards made the commitments considered essential prior to the campaign kick -off-largely because the branches didn’t agree on how the allocations would be shared.
Bev Laws’ only regret about his tenure in Orlando, he observed in an interview, was letting the completion drive go forward: “I should have said ‘Hold back, reorganize, then go’.”
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
HEEDING A CALL from Houston, Laws departed as metro executive director at the end of 19 72 to head the YMCA in that Texas city, where he remained until he retired in 1992. Although the completion effort had been a disappointment, Laws had presided over the Orange County YMCXs most spectacular era yet, as the downtown and Winter Park buildings and South Orlando facilities established a strong, permanent presence in three local communities. As well, the popularity of four-front programs and outreach in the growing South Seminole County, led by Program Director Max Clark, had generated enthusiasm for finding a site to establish another YMCA facility there.
One of Laws’ last actions was to recruit his colleague Bill Phillips back to the Association as associate executive director, to supervise branch operations and put Camp Wewa’s program, finances, and reputation back on track.
The mid-1960s building campaign had succeeded wildly beyond expectations, in an opportune convergence of great leadership and good economic times. It was fueled by the building boom in Orange County and great optimism that preceded the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971 and, soon after, Universal Studios and Sea World. However, rough times were ahead for the region and for the YMCA, foreshadowed by the weak fund-raising effort. The astonishing growth of the ’60s would be followed by another bust in the mid-1970s, in one of the area’s characteristic cycles, and the Association would again struggle to maintain its hold.
Inserts and Footnotes
1963: Bev Laws hired as CEO of Orange County YMCA. Mayor’s Inter-racial Council moves to integrate all public places.
1964: YMCA budget $194,000+, up from $165,000 in 1963. John Sterchi named to head YMCA building drive.
1965: I-4 opens in Orlando; Dickson-Ives store folds. Sentinel-Star sold to Tribune Company. Florida Technological University offices open downtown. Walt Disney (below, left) announces plans to build Disney World and EPCOT Center. Orlando population tops 250,000.
1966: Orlando Public Library dedicated. YMCA breaks ground for new Central Branch in January.
1967: Northeast branch building in Winter Park dedicated in June.
1968: South Orlando Branch dedicates site in December.
1969: Local businesses plan for advent of Walt Disney World. Space and defense industries thrive; man walks on moon. Orlando and McCoy Air Bases begin phase-out; Navy prepares to open training base.
1970: 22,000 students enroll at new Florida Technological University. Florida schools integrate under federal order.
1971: Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World’s first phase, opens in October.
1972: Bev Laws leaves Orlando for Houston YMCA.
A TRIO OF COMMUNITY BUILDERS
NO ONE DID more to build modern Orlando than Linton Allen, Martin Andersen, and Billy Dial. Together and individually, they influenced the aerospace industry’s arrival by wooing the Martin Company, landed the institution that became the University of Central Florida, and got major roads routed through the city that smoothed the way for Disney’s arrival. They facilitated Disney’s quiet acquisition of land so the company could build a gigantic tourist magnet. Each man also wielded his influence for the Orange County YMCA.
Allen started as a haberdasher, then joined his dad’s bank in Georgia. He moved on to banks in New York and Chicago, where he did well enough to retire- at age 37- to Florida. Restless in retirement, he became president of the Sanford Atlantic Bank and after six years, executive vice president of the newly chartered First National Bank at Orlando. Allen “knew how to challenge young men and women to reach for higher goals,” the Orlando Rotary’s 75-year book noted Allen traveled with Governor LeRoy Collins in 1956 to recruit northern businesses to their city, meeting with the Martin Company, among others. Unfortunately, Allen did not live to see the downtown YMCA open after playing a significant role in its fundraising. A deacon of the First Presbyterian Church, he died in 1965, the year ground was broken on Mills, while being honored at a service in the Church’s Reformation Chapel that he and his wife had financed.
Martin Andersen, appointed publisher of the Orlando Sentinel-Star in 1931 and later its owner, was one of the area’s key business leaders and visionaries. He forthrightly used his newspapers to crusade for pet causes, and the YMCA was a direct beneficiary of his boosterism. Andersen also moved behind the scenes to help gamer opportunities for Orlando such as the Naval Training Center. Along with Billy Dial, he helped secure lnterstate-4 ‘s passage through the city. John Sterchi dubbed Andersen “Mr. Central Florida.” The year the downtown YMCA broke ground, Andersen sold his papers to Chicago’s Tribune Company. He died in 1986.
Billy Dial, a lawyer and banker, was a towering presence in Florida. He came to Orlando in 1932 to practice law, and helped a client, the First National Bank, to avert a takeover in 1945. At Allen’s behest Dial became a vice president of First National in 1958 and president in 1961, when Allen retired. Following acquisitions in other cities, the bank became SunBank in 1973 and, with $1 billion in deposits, was instrumental in financing Florida’s boom. Dial, one of the YMCA ”grandfathers” who supported the 1965 building drive with a major gift, is credited with securing Florida Technological University for Orlando. His daughter Joan married Dan Ruffier, a long-time YMCA volunteer and trustee who chaired the board in 1990-91 and helped lead various capital campaigns. Dial retired from SunBank in 1977 but continued to practice law. He passed away in 1999 at age 91.
DEDICATING THE DOWNTOWN YMCA
“Dr. [John] Anderson traced the past of the YMCA from its conception in 1844 … Anderson said the YMCA is needed now more than ever since ‘our society has changed so much.’ He pointed out two ‘revolutions’ that are under way in the world-the technological and sociological. As a result of the technological revolution, we have more people with less to do because of automation. And as a result of the sociological revolution, we have people all over the world-not just in the U.S.-striving to overcome.
“The phrase ‘We Shall Overcome’ that we have come to know in the U.S. is only a small part of the worldwide struggle that is taking place. Because of these new revolutions, we have people with new ideas, and education is showing them the way. People are now coming to the conclusion that they don’t need God … the theory that God is dead is becoming as strong as the feeling that Santa Claus is dead. ‘We are having a complete depersonalization. It is not completely necessary to have this depersonalization. We must gain new respect for each other.'”
— The Orlando Sentinel, January 9, 1967