FITNESS AND FAMILY AT THE DAWN OF DISNEY 1973–1982
AS BEV LAWS departed for Houston, economic gloom had begun to gather over Central Florida. In these waning years of the U.S. war in Southeast Asia, a national recession was gaining force. Oil-producing countries were asserting mighty muscle over fuel prices, leading to widespread gasoline shortages and fears about the future. The U.S. space program was hard hit as well; diminished activity at Cape Kennedy and related local industries drained jobs from Central Florida. The Orlando and McCoy Army-Air Bases, so important to the regional economy since the 1940s, were being phased out.
Huge expectations before Walt Disney World opened its Magic Kingdom in 1971 had led to overbuilding of housing and hotels. Now, money was tight, and foreclosures were frequent, with some properties going for 50 cents on the dollar. Central Florida’s transition from a citrus economy to a tourist-driven one nearly came to a halt, as fuel scarcity and high prices kept visitors away from Disney’s attractions. An international holiday destination was in the making, beyond anyone’s imagination at the time-but at Disney’s debut the ’60s boom was swiftly turning to bust. Orlando’s downtown district continued its descent as new roads siphoned off shoppers to suburban malls. By 1974, the overextended metropolitan area was in full-blown recession, and in the centennial year of 1975 its leap from small city to the big time was stalled, at best.
The Orange County YMCA was also beset by the hard times. Its completion campaign had stumbled badly in 19 72, leaving the Association unable to retire old debt or devote any significant funds to needed expansions. “Those were tough years,” recalled Happy Sterchi, an Association board member at the time. “In general, the Y was trying to keep our head above water.”
Stepping into this situation as Laws’ successor was Max Cooke, recruited from the YMCA he had led for 17 years in High Point, NC. Cooke was well versed in camping programs but less experienced with branch operations. The High Point YMCA had only three facilities compared to seven operations he would manage in Central Florida. “This is a fast-moving YMCA program here,” Cooke told the Sentinel-Star when he arrived in 1973.
BUILDING A BRANCH NETWORK
KNOWLEDGE AND AWARENESS of the YMCA had grown significantly after the Downtown and Winter Park buildings opened. After so many years running programs at borrowed or rented sites, the Association had shown what a full-fledged YMCA could be. People throughout Metro Orlando saw these Ys and wanted something similar in their own communities. Those successes spurred the South Orlando branch, whose small facility had opened in 1968. This YMCA handily raised expansion funds in its community in 1973.
In West Orange County, the YMCA had offered day camping for some time. The area was quite mixed. An African-American community had taken root in Winter Garden in the 1880s. Now this citrus-rich section was home to black and Hispanic migrant workers as well as the affluent, primarily white community of Windermere. In the early 1970s, the YMCA extension program obtained an abandoned school property and converted it to a teen center. But the area lacked school-based YMCA programs until area resident Barbara Roper and another Camp Wewa board member, John Nowell, pushed to get Gra-Y and Hi-Y activities in West Orange County schools.
In 1972, the West Orange extension became a full branch YMCA and obtained use of a Ramada Inn pool for swimming lessons, plus two second-floor rooms for its offices. Association headquarters supplied part-time staff, Roper recalled, but emerging financial problems at the branch required stronger leadership. She volunteered to serve as board president for two years, to get the branch in shape, and enlisted other community members to help strengthen the West Orange operation.
Volunteers in South Seminole and Osceola Counties had also launched YMCA programs, in hopes of building facilities. Max Clark staffed the South Seminole County extension, formerly supervised by the Winter Park branch. He worked out of a trailer on Route 436 where the Altamonte Springs Mall now stands. “When I returned to Orlando in 1972, I had to write up money that was kept in that trailer, in every cabinet,” Bill Phillips recalled. The operation soon moved to a house next to Lake Brantley High School, where it sponsored large programs in schools, Indian Guide tribes, and sports activities. Phillips recalled the community as “growing like crazy.”
A YMCA formed in Osceola County in 1974, west of Kissimmee’s Thacker Elementary School. The branch offered a menu of sports and school-based programs, including Y’s Guys for children in kindergarten and first grade. The branch had great success with programs for high school students, often sending the largest delegations, as many as five busloads, to the statewide YMCA Youth and Government conference in Tallahassee.
The branch used the Highland Prep School field and running track for sports, and a loaned swimming pool to teach lessons for adults and youth. Adults also participated in aerobic classes and sports leagues. The Osceola County YMCA borrowed facilities at the nearby Tupperware headquarters for its summer day camps for children ages 6–12, recalled an early branch program director, Cindy Dietrich Ferguson, in an interview: “We canoed in a canal [on the property], and under its bridges.”
In 1974 the Osceola YMCA, which also served St. Cloud, obtained $476,000 in a very successful capital campaign to construct an outdoor pool and multi-purpose courts, dressing rooms, a small multi-purpose area, and office space. The branch used six elementary schools initially for popular parent-child programs, whose slogan was “Pals Forever,” expanding eventually to 21 schools. Ferguson drafted her sister to give twirling lessons and her brother-in-law to coach basketball. “We tried anything you could think of,” she recalled.
The Association had also assumed management of a YMCA in Volusia County in 1972. The independent West Volusia YMCA, located in DeLand, contracted with its Orlando-based counterpart, at the suggestion of the national Association, for management of its business operations and technical assistance with membership and training.
The Orange County Association made a significant change in 1974 to reflect more accurately its growing service area, which now encompassed three counties. The organization changed its name to the YMCA of Central Florida by amending the charter on February 25. The new title also reflected a desire for future expansion.
DEBTS BEDEVIL THE BOARD
FACED WITH SEVERE economic pressures and without adequate funding, the Association was having a hard time simply holding the line. However, Max Cooke persisted in implementing some new ideas. He created the new position of associate executive director to help him manage the multi-branch organization, and promoted Central branch executive Jim Stooke to fill it. This additional position boosted the YMCA’s operating budget to $1 million from $ 900,000-adding to a deficit that the Association board considered “tremendous.”
Cooke also moved the headquarters office out of the cramped Downtown branch building in June 1973, to a rental suite in the Myrick Building at 132 East Colonial Drive. Having to pay rent put the Association under more financial stress.
To deal with its deficits, the YMCA resorted to borrowing. Even though it had cash assets of some $216,000, branches were tapping the capital account when funds were needed. Three houses were purchased on Shine Street behind the Central branch, for eventual expansion, with $13,000 from capital funds. That branch also borrowed $62,000 for operations in 1973–74.
The conservative board of directors grew unhappy with the situation, and in November 1974 declared that sufficient capital funds must be set aside inviolate for payment of debts. Shortly thereafter, the Board asked for Cooke’s resignation. The matter was handled sensitively by Board Chairman Robert Smith, a well-known artist and illustrator for Ford Temes who was known professionally as Robert Curran, and Cooke departed at the end of 1975. Smith showed “very courageous volunteer leadership,” recalled Phillips.
AN OLD HAND STEPS IN
IT WAS NOW Bill Phillips’ time at bat. The Board asked him to fill the chief executive job and he assumed the post on January 1, 1976-initially as general director, and a year later taking the title of president.
Phillips was well prepared to lead this YMCA, having worked at the Central Florida Association in prior years. He was also a certified YMCA director. Phillips had obtained certification at Florida State University, along with his bachelor’s degree, by taking 30 credits in group work, counseling, business, physical education, and Association history and philosophy, taught by YMCA professionals the University hired for that purpose. In addition, Phillips also signed a statement of belief in the Christian purpose of the YMCA to earn certification, a requirement that the national YMCA would eliminate in the 1960s.
His mandate could not have been clearer-to get the YMCA out of debt while keeping its programs alive. Phillips’ first step was to move the metro offices out of the Myrick building and into one of the houses that the YMCA owned on Shine Street.
Phillips immediately assembled a team that could address the financial challenges while keeping YMCA programs running. Unable to pay more experienced people, Phillips hired young, single adults, and assembled a strong, dedicated staff that bonded closely, even congregating on holidays at Phillips’ home. In July, he recruited Clark David Baker from a small Indiana Association to head the Downtown branch, and to be his number two man. “I was 29, and was told to look older,” recalled Baker, who now serves the Houston YMCA as its chief executive. That was the worst year for the Central Florida Association, he recalled in an interview: “We were poor as dogs.”
Another of those staffers was Cindy Dietrich, who had moved to Central Florida in 1975 from St. Petersburg where she taught physical education, health, and biology. Dietrich was living in Kissimmee while the Osceola County YMCA was building up, and was soon hired as program director at that branch, then at the Central branch. /Phillips clearly articulated his expectations of staff. “We became a team to overcome debt,” he noted. He asked Baker, who brought experience with fund raising and endowments, to set up Central Florida’s first Heritage Club for people who named the Association in their wills.
Baker recalled that Phillips occasionally took the team out to lunch after staff meetings, but he would pay only for the restaurant’s $2.89 special. Phillips required staff members to pitch in for their own meals when there were weekend meetings. “Your part was pro-rated on Monday,” Baker said. “Or we all brought covered dishes, and Board members chipped in for a ham.” Dietrich, then the YMCA’s lone female program director, also recalled outings where staff members formed teams and played games. “The guys were jocks,” she said. “They were so competitive.”
Aside from the games and fellowship, “Chief Phillips” was a highly organized taskmaster. Staff meetings started promptly at 9 a.m., and the door was locked to latecomers. The staff’s motto for Phillips, Baker recalled, was, “He might not always be right, but he’s never in doubt.”
MENDING YMCA FINANCES
SOON AFTER HE arrived, Phillips replaced the Association’s bookkeeper. Concurrently, the YMCA got a new outside auditor, Wayne Brewer, from the firm Colley, Trumbower & Howell, certified public accountants who had conducted Association audits pro bono for 20 years. It was Brewer’s first time to be put in charge of an audit. His arrival proved serendipitous
“I organized a team,” Brewer recalled. “Over the next three years, I tried to help them clean up the records and figure out how much they owed. They were just getting by each year. Bill inherited bad recordkeeping; no one knew just how bad things were.”
In fact, the Central Florida Association was facing bankruptcy. The Board, which had begun to tap earnings and principal from the Sterchi Trust for general purposes, briefly considered reorganization. After Brewer had performed a couple of audits, he asked Phillips why in the world he had taken the CEO job. Phillips responded that he needed Brewer “to come to work for me and straighten out the mess.”
Brewer accepted, and became the Association’s chief financial officer in 1979-and the first CFO at any YMCA to hold an MBA degree and CPA designation. The timing coincided with a major event in Brewer’s life. His family had just become Christian, he recalled: “I felt the Lord ‘s leading me to do something more rewarding than audit books. The opening at the Y came at the same time.”
When Brewer assumed the post, the Association owed $100,000 in trade accounts, outstanding for more than a year. The new CFO spent his first year working out deals with YMCA creditors. “Luckily we were a nonprofit,” he recalled. “People didn’t want us to sink.” He had the full backing of a fiscally conservative boss whose business sense he respected. Bill Phillips “understood dollars and cents,” Brewer observed.
Technically and legally the YMCA of Central Florida, with its branches, was-and is- one organization. But Brewer found that branches were operating as independent entities. Each maintained its own checking account with a community bank, although checkbooks were kept at headquarters, and the Association used them in paying bills. Branches running a deficit were in the habit of borrowing at their local banks to cover them, and those loans added to the Central Florida YMCA debt load.
Loan rates were reaching historic highs in this period, and new borrowing came with double-digit interest rates. “They were incurring interest expense for all of the Central Florida Y,” the former CFO recalled.
To stem this practice, Brewer insisted on building operational reserves. “Previously, they never allowed for the unexpected or bad years,” he observed. First, he established a cash-flow reserve of three percent to meet current needs and to replace the habitual borrowing. He also set up a reserve for maintenance, at two-and-a half percent of the cost of YMCA buildings. By paying its bills in cash, the Association could obtain discounts and avoid exorbitant interest rates. “It took some pressure off,” Brewer said.
CAPITALIZING ON CAMPAIGN FUNDS
BREWER ALSO USED the unusual interest-rate situation to the YMCNs advantage. Those reserves, if invested intelligently, could command as much to 18 to 20 percent interest.
Several branches were conducting local capital campaigns at the time, to build or enhance facilities. “They were raising $300,000 in three to five communities,” he recalled. Understandably cautious with funds they raised, branches typically put them in lower-paying passbook accounts at local banks. Now, with fully insured jumbo certificates of deposit (CDs) paying much higher rates, Brewer convinced these branches to pool capital funds with others, enabling all YMCAs to earn top rates paid on $100,000 CDs. “It took them a while, but they finally caught on,” he said.
Brewer proceeded to commingle those capital dollars with operations money. When the YMCA reached insured limits at banks, Baker recalled, they would drive from bank to bank to get the most favorable rates. The Board Finance Committee also agreed to let the YMCA put its operating monies into the Capital Preservation Fund, a California-based money-market fund that paid 10 percent or more in interest and allowed check writing on its accounts.
Brewer used that account to pay large bills, such as health insurance, taking care to pay them at the last minute so the account would earn the maximum interest possible. Given the three-hour time difference between Florida and California, after-hours deposits could earn the YMCA an extra day’s interest. “We made a pothold of money because we had money,” Brewer recalled. “We also dragged our feet in building, because we could make more by investing the capital than putting it in bricks and mortar.”
During his “traumatic” first year on staff, Brewer accompanied Phillips and Clark to a YMCA conference at a North Carolina retreat. Despite their concerted efforts to reduce debt, the Association remained $90,000 in the red. “Bill, Clark, and I went over to Robert E. Lee Hall, a mansion that overlooks the Smokies,” recalled Brewer. “We said, ‘What are we going to do? ‘ We did a lot of praying and asked for God’s direction and blessing,” and afterwards, he said, “We all felt better.” The YMCA finished that year in the black, and began to focus on strategies to move it forward.
In sum, Brewer brought about a paradigm shift in Association operations by cultivating “the mindset that if you are a branch executive, your job also depends on balancing your budget.” The transition wasn’t always smooth. “Coming from the business world, it seemed like a no-brainer,” he observed, but it came as a shock to the “mission people” who thought that the YMCA was like a church and shouldn’t have to act like a business.
Also helped by the improving economy, the YMCA paid off its $100,000 backlog within 18 months, and its Downtown building was now nearly clear of debt. That coincided with another change in Brewer’s life. His widowed mother needed financial assistance, so he left the CFO post to accept a private sector job at a higher salary. Brewer helped the Association, whose budget was approaching $ 2 million, to finish out the year.
“We turned it around in three years, paid off all debt, and added to all our facilities but Downtown,” Phillips recalled proudly.
FITNESS FUELS GROWTH
A PASSION FOR fitness and wellness pervaded the nation in the 19 70s. Running, jogging, yoga, and Nautilus became common conversational terms, among adults as well as youth. As this new consciousness and participation in physical activity grew in Central Florida, the YMCA was perfectly positioned to help people find ways to stay healthy and in shape. After all, the Association had a century of experience in physical work.
Central branch members were among the most enthusiastic, Baker recalled. Several early birds devised a way to get into the YMCA at 6 a.m. when the employee responsible for opening it overslept. They had had their own keys made for the facility before Baker discovered-and terminated- the practice.
In turn, the growing popularity of YMCA fitness programs and memberships offered a solid source of revenues, and the promise of lessening dependence on donations. Central branch dues and fees grew to be the largest portion of revenues, Baker noted (What a YMCA Membership Cost, next column). The annual support campaign accounted for about one-third, and the other third came from camps and other youth programs.
The Central Florida YMCA encouraged participants to start and keep up a good exercise regime. With cardiovascular disease emerging as the leading cause of death in the U.S., the Association created a preventive program for those at risk or others concerned about cardiovascular health. David W Dunsworth, the Association’s physical education director, also promoted personal fitness as a way to “forestall the aging process.”
A donation from the Dr. P. Phillips Foundation (A Generous Ally, p. 107) allowed the Downtown YMCA to obtain $1,800 worth of equipment, including a bicycle ergometer to monitor heart rate, and a cardiotachometer to measure stress. Three body measurements were taken to determine an individual’s body fat, supporting the Central branch’s weight-loss initiative introduced in 1975.
The Winter Park YMCA featured an extensive buffet of fitness activities: archery, youth and adult ballet, modern and tap dance, tennis, golf, gymnastics, power and co-ed volleyball, “Ladies'” Slimnastics, and women’s basketball. For youth there was baton, cheerleading, boys’ and girls’ recreation, judo, and karate. The branch also offered backpacking, touted as “one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the U.S. today.” More sedentary members found classes in macramé, ceramics, bridge, and even dog obedience training.
By 1974, this popular branch had grown so crowded that it was forced to hold classes outdoors. In autumn 1976, it asked permission from the Winter Park zoning commission to rezone its property on the north side of Palmer Avenue, where it had bought five houses with a grant from the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation. The branch hoped to use three of the houses for programs and activities, raze a fourth to add 45 parking spaces, and use the fifth as a caretaker’s home. The community objected, requesting hedges around the one house already in use, and a six-foot-high wooden fence to block the view of two houses along Palmer. With these concessions, in November the commission approved the use of just three of the houses, for programs.
WOMEN ASK FOR PARITY
TO ACCOMMODATE THE public’s growing interest in fitness activities, the YMCA’s outmoded buildings and gyms had to be updated. Women members in particular were dissatisfied with existing facilities. Although the first branches had been created for the whole family, female participants thought the male-only Central branch Health Club unfair in light of their own limited amenities.
Longtime volunteer Barbara Roper recalled a “national edict” in this era that required Associations to provide equal facilities for men and women. She was on the Southeastern YMCA committee charged with implementing the directive. “The men were not really happy,” she recalled. “The Y had always welcomed women, but with limited access-they couldn’t swim during hours when men wanted the pool, just evenings and family swim times.” That held true at the Central Florida YMCA, which only had three pools at this time.
Clark Baker, by then the Association’s head of operations, led a capital campaign in 19 79 to upgrade fitness facilities at the Downtown branch with Nautilus equipment, racquetball courts, and a new Women’s Fitness Center. Female lockers were expanded by converting a men’s locker room, and new amenities-a sauna, and hair dryers-were added. The Association raised more than $184,000 for the renovations, including $50,000 from the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation and a $35,000 matching grant from the Central Florida Capital Funds Committee (CFCFC), the entity that coordinated capital fund raising by local nonprofits.
Early in Phillips’ tenure as CEO, the Association began offering child care. The Central Florida YMCA soon became an important source of support for entire families-and, increasingly, working mothers who were joining the labor force in record numbers. The South Orlando YMCA started a kinder camp for 4- and 5-year-olds to assist working parents in this area, where Disney and Universal’s Sea World were major employers. With child care available at YMCA branches, working parents could participate more freely in their activities. To reflect this new emphasis, the Central Florida YMCA added “Family” to all branch names in 1978.
While serving female members in new ways, the Association was also bringing women into new roles as volunteers. A number of them had worked as captains in the YMCA’s completion campaign in the early 19 70s, but few served as policy volunteers. In 1972, Metro Board member Jack C. Inman, an attorney, recruited Barbara Roper to the nearly all-male board. (Branch boards were already more egalitarian, typically 50-50 men and women.)
Roper, who served on the Northwest/Camp Wewa board and helped create the West Orange YMCA, had proven leadership abilities. She founded and chaired the Commission on the Status of Women, first for Orange County, then for the Tri-County region and subsequently, was vice chair of the statewide Commission. She was also on the board of the National Public Broadcasting Service for eight years, starting in 1973.
When Phillips became CEO, he appointed Roper as the Central Florida representative to the regional YMCA board; she then chaired the National Committee on Membership Standards that conducts reviews of all Associations. Roper also represented the YMCA of the USA at a youth conference in Trinidad and Tobago, beginning a long involvement with the World Alliance of YMCAs.
“Bill Phillips was very interested in the equality of women at the ‘Y,’ both at the board and facility level,” Roper recalled in an interview. “He put a stop to the old-boy network.”
Even so, YMCA leadership roles were traditionally vested in men- “banks and businessmen called the shots,” Roper recalled. Early in her tenure as a metro director, one board chair made the mistake of telling her that she could never hold any office other than secretary. In the late ’70s, when Roper chaired the nominating committee, “they asked if I would serve as secretary-again. I said I wondered if there would ever be a chance to serve as anything else. The man said, ‘I don’t know.'”
That fueled Roper’s determination to do much, much more. With the support of Bill Phillips and directors Charles Hollaway and T. A. (Pete) Denmark, Barbara Roper was elected the first female board chair of the Central Florida YMCA, in 1980-1981. She went on to become a key leader in the YMCA of the USA as well, elected to chair the national board a decade later. As the first woman to hold either office, Roper made history in both organizations.
Women were also moving up in the Association’s staff ranks. The Golden Triangle Family YMCA recruited Cindy Dietrich as its first executive director, making her the first female to head a YMCA branch in Central Florida. After many years of leadership roles at various YMCAs, Cindy Dietrich Ferguson is now vice president for programs at the Houston Association.
RELIGION’S ROLE IN A NEW ERA
“CHRISTIANITY WAS ALWAYS a very critical part” of the YMCA, Phillips pointed out, recalling the slogan “Building Christian Communities, Christian Character” that was widely used in the 1950s and 1960s. But by the late 1960s, it became a hotly debated subject within the national organization. “They wanted to take the ‘C’ out of YMCA,” recalled Phillips, who witnessed a big demonstration about the issue at a national meeting. He was so concerned that he left YMCA work for a few years. “If we took [Christian] out, it would just be a recreation center,” Phillips said.
Although the YMCA of Central Florida had no intention of dropping its ‘C,’ the Association was keenly aware of the more diverse community that now surrounded it. “We would say, ‘it’s not an organization of Christians, but a Christian organization’,” Phillips affirmed. “It was open to everybody.”
At the Central branch, potential members occasionally expressed concern about the Christian affirmation on the back of YMCA membership cards. Clark Baker, downtown executive director in the 1970s, would offer to cover the reference on membership cards to “Jesus Christ” for those who were uneasy about it.
All YMCA programs were inclusive. Phillips remembered the many Jewish girls who participated in Tri-Hi-Y at Edgewater High School in College Park, and that Camp Wewa’s summer sessions often included Jewish youth from Miami. Although devotional services took place daily at camp, its chapel-named in honor of Bev Laws in the mid-1970s-was inter-denominational. “We didn’t try to evangelize, but we made no apologies,” Phillips said. “We started our meetings with a prayer.”
By the early 1980s, however, as American society was becoming increasingly diverse through immigration, a transition took place in the YMCA. Values and character-building became the watchwords, consciously incorporated in Y programs. The overarching idea, said Phillips, remained to teach youth about moral issues. In the ’70s, the trend was to encourage young people to make their own decisions, he recalled. But, he wondered, “If kids didn’t know values, how could they decide?”
A FAMILY CENTER FOR SOUTH ORLANDO
DESPITE THE ASSOCIATION’S struggles with budgets and debt, the growth in area-wide branches was remarkable. By the mid- 19 70s a number of communities in and around Orlando were working hard to build YMCAs of their own.
The South Orlando community was beginning to feel the impact of Disney and the nearby entertainment complex, as apartment complexes and housing projects multiplied in the area. Branch membership was growing by 10 percent a year. In 1976, the South Orlando YMCA expanded a second time by adding outdoor lighted courts for basketball, racquetball, and tennis; a sun shelter; and an expanded pool deck Turning to its large membership of 3,500, this Y asked each family to donate $250 to its building fund.
The fund drive raised nearly $187,000. With a match of $225,000 from the CFCFC, South Orlando began construction in 1977 on a $600,000 indoor facility. In the fall of 1978, the branch planned to open a gym that would be the state’s largest, an exercise room, offices, and lobby space. Basketball goals in the gym would lower to eight feet to suit elementary school-age players. This YMCA hoped to add a large, multipurpose space and indoor handball courts in the 22 ,000-square-foot building but was unable to because it remained $200,000 short.
Alex Beasley, writing in Little Sentinel on January 14, 1981, observed that “a cavernous section inside the South Orlando Y” was still incomplete. The branch, he reported, was left with “shells of three racquetball courts and enough unused floor space for a small parking lot. Pipes [for a fire-safety sprinkler system] hang from the ceiling like metal stalactites. Wires snake their way over the maze of pipes and the darkness is broken by the occasional glare of a naked light bulb.”
Branch Executive Director Charles Ferrell, quoted in the Little Sentinel article, said the South Orlando YMCA would finish the facility and add a cardiovascular testing center and multipurpose room if it could raise $225 ,000. The United Way and CFCFC, after some delay, had approved another fund-raiser for the branch to begin in January 1982. Costs had escalated since 1977, but Ferrell was optimistic about raising the sum needed. After all, the South Orlando YMCA location was excellent, with its proximity to a new Westinghouse site and Disney World. He envisioned doubling the 13,000 participants the branch served in 1980 at the facility on West Oak Ridge Road.
A LAND DEAL FOR WEST ORANGE
IN THE EARLY 1970s, the Orange County YMCA obtained a school property, abandoned after integration, for outreach activities in West Orange County. It was converted to a teen center, with Benjamin T. Hargrove Jr., former Northwest branch executive, as its director. The West Orange branch also offered camping at Story Point peninsula on Lake Butler and an innovative environmental camp program in 1975 that featured physical obstacles, rope climbing, and arts and crafts using only outdoor materials.
When the Ramada Inn changed hands, it could no longer host the YMCA’s offices. Local volunteers examined their options. Mary V. Tanner, an area resident whose late husband E. M. (Dock) Tanner had been Winter Garden’s longtime city clerk, donated five acres for a YMCA site. A neighbor whose property adjoined the Tanner acreage objected to the plan, so Barbara Roper’s husband Bert stepped in and crafted an ingenious deal.
Bert Edward Roper, scion of a pioneer family in the area since the mid-19th Century, arranged for Lou Jacobs to buy the land Tanner donated, situated north of Florida’s Turnpike. In return, Jacobs sold Roper a 21-acre tract of grove land south of the toll road. Roper then released 10 acres of that tract, on Windermere and Marshall Farms Roads, for the West Orange YMCA to purchase as the branch site. The Ropers put the other 11 acres they purchased in a unitrust, naming the YMCA as its beneficiary. (Eventually the Ropers liquidated the trust, donating most of the proceeds to the Association.)
With land in hand, the West Orange YMCA mounted a capital campaign in the spring of 1978 and netted nearly $115,000 to build a permanent facility. Money raised locally was matched by $ 70,000 in CFCFC funds. When it opened later that year, the building boasted an outdoor L-shaped swimming pool, dressing rooms, a multipurpose room where adults could exercise, and teens could meet, an office, and a lobby. The new structure was named in honor of the original donor, Mary V. Tanner.
A YMCA GROWS IN RURAL LAKE COUNTY
A NEW YMCA was taking shape in Eustis in 1977. Dedicated local volunteers, led by John Jackson, the longtime county agent for citrus at the University of Florida College of Agriculture, were working hard to make it happen.
Jackson, who was born and raised in Orlando, had participated in YMCA programs since 19 51. He became a Camp Wewa counselor at age 13 when an older boy quit, and inherited a cabin of 7- and 8-year-olds. His boss and role model was the “absolutely remarkable” Lenny Asquith, recalled Jackson. The young man also drove a YMCA bus for a few summers, and was aquatic director at the Y day camp in Moss Park Jackson also belonged to Hi -Y at Boone High School.
When he moved to Lake County in 1968, Jackson was disappointed to find no YMCA for his children, and talked up the idea to others in the community. “We made an attempt in 1974,” he recalled, “but it fizzled and flopped.”
Determined, he tried another tack He contacted acquaintances who were involved with YMCA Indian Guides in Seminole County, and got them to let people from Lake County participate in their program. “We had two tribes, 16 dads and sons who had a wonderful time,” recalled Jackson, who served as a chief.
Jackson was “bent on the YMCA being there,” said Cindy Ferguson, who served this branch as executive director. “He worked it and worked it until he got everyone’s attention,” including the metro Association leadership. Emboldened by a number of signed intents to join a local YMCA, Jackson’s core group of 10 volunteers formally organized the Golden Triangle YMCA in 1976, named for the area which encompasses the towns of Eustis, Mount Dora, and Tavares. They took their case for staffing a site to the Central Florida Association; there, they learned that YMCA branches had to raise local funds before the Association would provide support. Phillips estimated that the new branch would need to raise $30,000 to staff a program.
The Golden Triangle board set a $32,000 goal, raising money any way they could, Ferguson recalled. They invited bands for a first-ever bluegrass festival at the county fairgrounds, where the musicians performed on a flatbed truck. But the efforts brought only about $16,000, and the disillusioned steering committee met and voted to return the donations. Luckily, a local reporter attended the meeting and published a story saying that the would-be YMCA was going to fold.
Paul Odom, who worked at the local Ford dealership, read the report and called to ask what was needed to make the drive successful. The next day he had his dealer’s agreement to donate $50 from every vehicle sold for a year to the Golden Triangle YMCA. As an added enhancement, any buyer of a new or used Ford could join the branch for just $25. Odom personally mailed the checks, Ferguson recalled. That and other volunteer efforts allowed the branch to achieve its goal and to get going without a building. “We convinced people that the YMCA was not a building, but programs,” she said.
Jackson, as Golden Triangle YMCA board chairman, recruited Paula Stinson. For those not meeting fund-raising goals for the Golden Triangle branch, a goat might pay a visit at home or work. Here, with Fred Rohrdanz. to the cause, “the best thing that ever happened,” he recalled. “If you get her involved, you’ll be successful.” Stinson, locally known as “Ms. Tavares,” enlisted backers from the Junior Women’s Club. “She knew everyone, and everyone knew her,” observed Ferguson. Stinson, who later became branch board chair, along with another volunteer, Richard Paul, tapped groups in Eustis and Mount Dora. “The community loved it and rallied around it,” Ferguson recalled of this YMCA branch.
It would be a decade before the Golden Triangle branch would build a facility. The start-up YMCA operated from an office in the manse of the Eustis First Presbyterian Church. Senior exercise classes, filled with “snowbirds” who had settled in local mobile home parks, took place in the living room of the manse, and aerobic classes in the armory. For swim lessons, the branch used a small community pool in Tavares and for tennis, a church parking lot strung with temporary nets. The Y also taught bridge, “camped all the time and played soccer on any field we could find,” recalled Ferguson.
Board members Wendy Geeslin, a Junior League member in Eustis, and Mary Jane Auls taught aerobics and served as coaches and team moms. “Without them we couldn’t have started up,” Ferguson said of all the volunteers. “It was their ‘Y.’ They did whatever it took to make this thing happen.”
In 1980, Golden Triangle board member Leslie Willard gave the branch a building on Eustis’ Main Street, a former church where his daughter Margie had run a sewing center for several years. That site, and an adjacent house, would serve as the branch nexus for the next seven years.
PHILLIPS KEPT THE Association focused on core YMCA programs that met the needs of the young, rapidly growing population in the metro area. He continued to emphasize parent-child programs, such as Indian Guides; the sports-oriented Gra-Y and other in school efforts; and camping. Nationally, the YMCA’s Four-Front youth programs were on the wane, disappearing entirely in major areas of the country, but the Four-Fronts held fast in parts of the Midwest and much of the South. More than half the Central Florida YMCA programs continued to be Four-Front offerings that took place outside its limited facilities. “It was a juggling act,” Phillips admitted.
In 1977, the West Volusia YMCA in DeLand, managed by the Central Florida Association for five years and now also serving northern Orange County, asked to join the Association as a formal branch. This Y was in serious debt. “Chuck Hollaway and I met with them in an old warehouse they used,” Phillips recalled. They agreed to help, based on two criteria, he added. “We wouldn’t take on their debt; and they would have to leave that building.”
Two nights later, Phillips said, the warehouse caught fire. The West Volusia YMCA subsequently collected enough in insurance to be able to rent an office. Surrendering its independent charter, this new Central Florida branch conducted a capital campaign in DeLand the following year that brought in nearly $205,000. It was just enough to construct an L-shaped swimming pool, activity room, dressing areas, lobby, and office.
The Northwest branch was finally phased out in 1978, when its Wewa Outdoor Center became part of the newly designated Camping Services branch. The new entity, created to strengthen volunteer involvement beyond what a committee could do, also included the Caravan Camp. The energetic Cindy Ferguson was named the first director of the camping branch in 1981.
The habitually overcrowded Winter Park YMCA continued to renovate bit by bit. In 1980 the branch added a 2,000-square-foot, $ 72,000 multipurpose room, ahead of schedule and under budget. In late 19 81, it opened an exercise, fitness, and testing center and lighted racquetball-handball courts, Fund raising to meet the $90,000 cost, helped by an Edythe Bush Foundation matching grant of $45,000, continued through March of 1982.
Despite this era’s having been one of the worst fiscal chapters in its history, the YMCA of Central Florida had nevertheless become a seven-branch operation by 1978, embracing three counties. “We were consciously endeavoring, as new communities sprouted up, to help Y s get started,” recalled longtime volunteer Jack Inman. “No one else holds a candle to the Central Florida Y for youth.”
WORKING TO SERVE ONE AND ALL
PEOPLE OF ALL races were welcomed when the Central Florida YMCA’s first facilities opened. Several directors gave impetus to the YMCA’s integration efforts, Phillips recalled, citing in particular Dr. John Anderson, who spearheaded the decision to integrate in the 1960s; Chuck Hollaway, board chairman in 1976–1977; Pete Denmark, a sporting goods store owner who followed as chair in 1978; Jack Inman; Al West; and Jack Bowen.
But non-white members remained small in number at the YMCA. “We had a good cross-section [of communities] except for the black community, and there were no Hispanics at all,” observed Inman, who became board president in 1983. “There was not much mixing after school integration. It took a couple of decades to evolve at the Y.”
Inman, a lawyer and former state legislator from Orange County, had long been involved with efforts to integrate Florida institutions. The Winter Park resident recalled his first session in the legislature, in 1957, when there was a last-resort attempt to close state schools to black students. He was one of only 3 3 House members to vote against the bill. ”A lot of people knew it was unconstitutional,” said Inman, a native of DeLand. “That was typical of the South.”
The YMCA program at Jones High School had effectively come to an end with school integration, when teachers who had been Hi-Y sponsors were dispersed to other schools. Bev Laws’ earlier effort to seed a YMCA program in the Washington Shores neighborhood had come to naught, and there was little Y outreach in the area’s ethnic and lower-income communities. The exception was West Orange County, where staffer Scott Charlesworth focused on migrant workers and getting their children enrolled in Gra -Y and other YMCA club programs in local schools.
In 1977, Phillips hired Willie Williams – the Association ‘s first African -American staff member – to run YMCA child care programs in schools north of Orlando, a predominantly black area. The programs were funded through a large federal grant. Williams and his wife directed the centrally located, subsidized pre-school and after -school programs for several years, where kids received homework help and recreational opportunities.
In 1979, the Association initiated an extension program in Tangelo Park, a neighborhood first developed for white-collar Martin Company employees in the 1950s that had evolved into a low-income African -American community. The YMCA rented space in a small building, offering several programs for local youth in schools and other neighborhood sites. The Tangelo Park outreach program became a full-fledged YMCA Family Center in January 1982, when the community invited the Association to operate a newly built neighborhood center of some 4,000 square feet.
The Association also participated in a social program called NYPUM (National Youth Program Using Mini-Bikes) in the 1970s, targeted to kids at risk of delinquency or drug abuse who were referred by their school districts. The program, which allowed participants to use Honda minibikes, lasted three or four years but folded because funds weren’t allocated for maintenance and upkeep of the bikes.
A TIME OF TRANSITION
DESPITE THE TOUGH times the Association faced in the 1970s, Clark Baker recalled an especially supportive board of directors who “hung in with us. They believed in the mission, and they were there because of the YMCA’s Christian purpose. They had high principles, morals, values – and they believed in inclusion. That was the genius of the Y.'”
Financial problems at the branches continued to plague the Association. In 1982, Metro Board Chair L. David Horner III decided that the YMCA of Central Florida needed new thinking, Baker recalled.
After six years as CEO and 19 years in all with the Central Florida YMCA, Bill Phillips departed in April 1982 to lead the Seattle Association (he would subsequently retire as head of the Houston YMCA). Clark Baker became interim CEO in Orlando for two months, leading the search for a new Association leader. Then he too left, to head the Chattanooga YMCA, where he recruited Wayne Brewer as his chief financial officer. (Brewer subsequently worked again for Phillips and then Baker, in Houston, where he is currently.
Baker took several other team members with him to Tennessee: Ron Putnam, executive director of the Osceola County branch in Kissimmee; Camping Director Cindy Dietrich Ferguson, and Rita Guthrie, the office manager.
The staff Phillips had assembled and led in Orlando remains close to this day. Nearly a dozen of them gather for reunions every two to three years. “I learned everything I know about the YMCA in Orlando,” said the lifelong Y leader Clark Baker.
Faced with severe economic problems not of its own making, the YMCA of Central Florida’s signal achievement in this troublesome era was that it kept programs thriving, managed to serve new communities and reduced an intolerable debt burden. Bill Phillips “held the Y together and kept it very strong, which was extremely important at that time,” observed Barbara Roper: “He had a bigger vision for the Association, brought in some very good executives and gave us a stability we didn’t have before.”
By reducing Association debt, Phillips and his team laid important groundwork for the YMCA’s future expansion. The creation of new branches they supported had lifted the Central Florida Association to rank as the seventh-largest YMCA in the southeast. Its nine family centers now spanned four counties.
Inserts and Footnotes
1972: Association assumes management of West Volusia YMCA in Deland.
1973: First National Bank becomes Sun Bank. East-West Expressway completed. Universal’s Sea World opens in December. Oil embargo sparks fuel crisis nationwide. Max Cooke becomes CEO of Orange County YMCA.
1974: Orange County Association becomes YMCA of Central Florida. Osceola County branch opens in Kissimmee. Circus World Showcase comes to Orlando, one of many enterprises to follow Disney.
1975: Orlando Centennial; Orange County History Center and Museum completed. US war ends in Vietnam, and Orlando receives first Vietnamese refugees.
1976: Former McCoy AFB Jet Port becomes Orlando International Airport. Bill Phillips becomes CEO of YMCA of Central Florida.
1978: Florida Technological University is renamed University of Central Florida. Camping Services branch organized, includes Wewa Outdoor Center. West Orange and Golden Triangle YMCA Family Centers open. West Volusia YMCA becomes a branch of Central Florida YMCA.
1980: Women gain Fitness Center at Downtown branch. Orlando Metro Area (Lake, Orange, Osceola, Seminole Counties) population reaches 850,000.
1981: Drought and fires afflict Orange, Seminole, Osceola, and Volusia counties.
1982: Central Florida suffers big winter freeze. Tangelo Park extension program becomes a YMCA Family Center in January.
WHAT A YMCA MEMBERSHIP COSTS
IN THE 1970s, membership rates at the Central branch were $85 a year for families, $35 for an adult, and $25 for youth. At Winter Park, families could join for $75, adults for $40, and young people, $25. The South Orlando branch charged $60 for families, $30 for adults, and $20 for youth, with discounts on three-year memberships.
A GENEROUS ALLY
THE GIFT OF fitness equipment at the YMCA’s Central branch marked the start of a close relationship with The Dr. Phillips Charities. The company founded by the renowned citrus impresario and canning pioneer, Dr. Phillips Inc., had evolved as a major developer, builder, and property owner in Central Florida after Minute Maid bought its groves in the 1950s. Dr. Philp Phillips, with his wife Della and son Howard, created a family foundation. In 1997, The Dr. P. Phillips Foundation and Dr. Phillips Inc. both became part of The Dr. Phillips Charities as philanthropic organizations committed to enhancing the quality of life in Central Florida by using their resources to make a meaningful impact through meeting community needs. All company profits from Dr. Phillips Inc. would be destined for local causes.
The Dr. Phillips Charities grew to rank among Florida’s largest philanthropies. Under the leadership of Jim Hinson, chairman, and Ed Furey, president, the organization donates $5 million annually to nonprofits in education and culture, primarily in Orange County. Its help in maintaining operations of the 11 outreach YMCA Family Centers in struggling neighborhoods has been indispensable.
Dr. Phillips Inc. would name the Central Florida YMCA its primary beneficiary in 2002, allocating 30 percent of its annual giving to the Association for major construction and expansion of branches. In 2002, the YMCA of Central Florida presented the charitable organization with its first George Williams Award, named for the Associations British founder, to honor a long and steadfast relationship.
ALMOST IN GUINESS
MONNIE LEWIS, A Sears appliance salesman and Winter Park resident, broke a world’s record at the Northeast branch, treading water for 25.5 hours in a publicity stunt engineered by branch physical education director Bill Pempek. The director told the Winter Park Sentinel he would have done it himself but he wasn’t buoyant enough.
Lewis, 49, started at 8 a.m. on a late summer Sunday in 1973. In an 8-by-8-foot area of the pool he remained vertical, or nearly, moving his arms and legs continuously and drinking Gatorade through a straw. To banish boredom, Lewis watched the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon on a color TV beside the pool. When he got tired around 3 a.m. on Monday, a girl wearing a bikini was enlisted to cheer him on. She and other spectators helped him keep going until 9:30 a.m.
But Lewis didn’t make the Guinness Book of Sports Records as expected; just before the publication’s deadline someone else topped his performance by treading water for 32 hours. In 1975, he tried again, logging 40 hours in the Winter Park YMCA pool-but his occasional five-minute breaks eliminated him from consideration.