Founded in 1953, the YMCA of Austin helps people of all backgrounds power their purpose and create positive change in their community.
Looking at the YMCA of Austin’s strength today, it would be easy to assume the road has always been a smooth one. It would also be a mistake.
It is important to recognize that our success today has come at great expense through nearly 70 years of toil, struggle and triumph over adversity, all motivated by one guiding principle – the YMCA Mission:
To put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all.
When YMCA Extension Secretary Hal Guyton traveled to Austin in 1952 charged with the task of creating a community Y in the heart of Texas, the very existence of such an organization seemed doubtful.
“After a city has experienced one hundred twenty three years of growth from a small rancher’s village to a busy state capital and university center without a YMCA, it is difficult for them to see the need for such services,” Guyton said in a 1953 follow-up report he made to the YMCA Southwest Area Council on his exploits in Austin. “This was certainly the case when I set out to establish the YMCA of Austin. From the start, it was truly the case of an ‘irresistible force meeting an immovable object.’ It soon became apparent that the project would be a long one, and the disappointments would be many.”
In his first meetings with city leaders in July of 1952, Guyton encountered a wide range of reasons why Austin did not need a YMCA. Some cited the city’s excellent Parks & Recreation Department. Others pointed to the vitality of the local Boy Scouts organization. Still others mistakenly claimed that Austin already had a YMCA, since the University of Texas YMCA had been in existence since 1886*.
Yet the fact remained that Austin was the only city in the United States with a population over 100,000 that did not have a community YMCA. “Austin’s different,” city leaders said when no other excuse would do. But Guyton saw this as indicative of a certain kind of defeatist behavior, which he refused to accept. “Fundraising efforts in Austin were so accustomed to failure that they accepted it is as normal instead of unusual,” Guyton wrote. “For example, the Community Chest had failed 21 times in 25 years.”
Undeterred, by September of 1952, Guyton had established a “Temporary Board,” and at the new board’s first meeting on November 13, 1952, Mr. George Riggin was selected as President. “This was an important day in the life of the Austin YMCA,” Guyton said, “because Mr. Riggin proved to be a strong and capable leader who worked above and beyond the call of duty.”
By early 1953, the Board had begun plans for membership enrollment but were increasingly hampered by one small problem: they had not acquired a building to house the YMCA of Austin. At the Board Meeting of March 12, word came to the officers that Mr. Fred Adams wanted to discuss with them “his interest in giving to the YMCA a very large home at an excellent location on the edge of the downtown business section.” Adams had established an excellent reputation as the driving force behind the successful Adams Extract Company (which, until recently, was headquartered in Austin), and applied the same dogged determination to his work with the Y that had brought him success in the business world.
“The future story of the Austin YMCA will surely record this move as a high point in its history,” Guyton said.
Known as the John Bremond House, located at 700 Guadalupe, the YMCA’s new home was hardly new at all, having been built in 1886. Designed by noted architect George Fiegel at a cost of $49,000, the house is considered one of the finest examples of Victorian architecture in all of Texas because of its intricate wrought-iron on the exterior and hard-carved walnut and mahogany paneling and molding on the interior.
For his part, Fred Adams is now generally regarded as the “founder” of the YMCA of Austin. After his initial donation he continued to serve on its Board of Directors for many years, and at the time of his death in 1980, was a member of its Advisory Board. Furthermore, it was through the sale of the John Bremond Mansion and Mr. Adams’ careful guidance that the TownLake Branch was built in 1969.
Having acquired its first home, the YMCA Board announced on July 3rd its selection of Benjamin R. Reynolds (or “B.R” as he was called) to serve as the organization’s first General Secretary. A University of Texas graduate and Executive Secretary at the Northside Branch YMCA in Houston, B.R Reynolds would lead the YMCA of Austin through its first phase of growth that would culminate with the opening of the TownLake Branch.
Far from the blueprint of today’s modern YMCA facilities, the first Austin Y featured such gentlemanly amenities as a “Men’s Lounge,” a “Reading Room” and a “Siesta Room” for those all-important midday naps. Of course, being a YMCA, the mansion also contained a “Business Men’s Health Center” in its basement, which included an exercise room with stationary bikes, free weights and newfangled weight machines, a massage room, lockers, showers, and now-outdated health equipment like “thermal cabinets,” and “ultra-violet ray lamps.”
The second floor held a game room, lounge and a clubroom for young adult activities, while the third floor was the boys’ game room for Ping-Pong, chess and checkers, a photography dark room and a woodworking area. A typical afternoon might find a group of teenage boys spinning records or playing chess on the second floor, while on the third floor you might encounter a meeting of the photography club building model airplanes.
The YMCA of Austin established a day camp program for local boys (girls and women weren’t eligible to join the Y until a few years later) that included activities such as archery, basketball and volleyball, group singing, swimming in Barton Springs and a brief, daily devotional session. The Austin Y also founded a chapter of the Y-Indian Guides – a parent/child program based on Native American traditions and outdoor activities that still flourishes in Austin today as Adventure Guides. Gra-Y and Hi-Y clubs-which eventually evolved into the Austin Y’s citywide (and multi-county) Youth Sports Program – regularly met at the YMCA headquarters.
Perhaps most significant, the YMCA of Austin’s Financial Assistance Policy was activated in the first year, guaranteeing that no boy who wished to join the YMCA would be turned away due to an inability to pay. YMCA members of affiliated businesses would regularly sponsor underprivileged children, paying their membership and program fees out of pocket, much the way local businesses now sponsor Little League teams. A Sponsoring Men’s Membership cost $100 in 1955, while a boy’s membership ran $10. To this day, Financial Assistance remains a crucial cornerstone of the YMCA of Austin’s mission.
Despite its challenges, the early incarnation of the YMCA of Austin achieved quick success. In 1954, for example, the Austin Y claimed a total of 18,000 program and membership participants – impressive numbers for its first full year of operation.
With its steady membership and program development throughout the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the YMCA of Austin soon outgrew its original home in the Bremond House. Board members weighed their options, even landing themselves in the middle of a controversy in 1965 when word got out that they were considering demolishing the historic home.
“Any plan to demolish the Bremond House and put up a modern facility there would run into strong protest from the heritage-minded who want to preserve the few historic assets standing in the city,” the Austin American-Statesman proclaimed.
Backing away from this option, in 1967 the YMCA of Austin moved into a larger but temporary location at 611 Neches, the site of the old Seven-Up bottling plant. It was during this era, buoyed by expanded space for fitness facilities (including an indoor jogging track), that the YMCA of Austin enhanced its reputation as a leader in the physical fitness movement slowly taking hold across the country.
With the addition of the Olympic silver-medalist Paul Pesthy to the staff as Director of Physical Fitness, the YMCA of Austin added a high-profile professional to bring increased attention to programs like weightlifting and bodybuilding. A member of the U.S. Olympic Team in 1964 and 1968, Pesthy won a silver medal in the ‘64 Olympics as a member of the U.S. penthalon team.
Yet by May of 1967, the YMCA Board of Directors had taken note of another distinction, albeit a dubious one. Just as Austin had been the largest city in the country without a YMCA, now the organization found itself having to fend off those who clamored for a larger, new facility.
“I am abashed, even ashamed… to realize that there is no city in the United States of Austin’s size, nor a single city in Texas of even one-tenth our population, that lacks such modern, adequate YMCA plant,” said Board Member Richard F. Brown. “I say it’s high time we made up for this serious lack if for no other reason than of good old civic pride.”
Brown, who was also the American-Statesman publisher, walked his talk in chairing a $750,000 capital campaign to finance a new, state-of-the-art facility. “There is a clear interrelationship between the kind of facilities the YMCA has to work with and the kind and scope of the programs it can undertake,” Brown said. “If we want this job of character building done right, we the citizens of Austin must provide the proper tools.”
The campaign received an early boost when an anonymous donor contributed $75,000 toward financing construction of a new YMCA facility. Additional funds were raised by selling the Bremond House in 1968 to the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, which occupies the building to this day.
With a combination of capital campaign funds and loans, the Y was able to purchase from the Capital Area council of Boy Scouts a five-acre tract located between the MoPac (now Amtrak) Depot and Town Lake. The 36,000-square foot facility, designed by the local architecture firm of Lundgren & Maurer, generated lots of excitement with its modern “Aztec-inspired” motif and expansive recreational amenities.
Upon its opening on September 14, 1970, the TownLake Branch YMCA was widely heralded as leading the cutting-edge of contemporary fitness and community facilities. At the same time, the YMCA broke down an important barrier by accommodating both men and women with their own fitness facilities and locker rooms. The branch also included a full-court gymnasium and roomier meeting and workout areas to better serve the needs of a growing city.
What should have been a turning point in the organization’s history nearly led to its demise as the YMCA struggled with new challenges in the early 1970s. With the untimely death of B.R. Reynolds in 1973 at the age of 54, YMCA Board Members uncovered a number of hidden financial problems left over from the construction of the new facility.
“When I joined the board in 1973, I walked into my first or second meeting and they said, ‘We’re just not sure if we’re going to be able to meet payroll this week,’ says Jeff Bomer, longtime YMCA of Austin Board Member. “And there was a lot of heated discussion about what to do. One of the options was to put the Y in bankruptcy or, at worst, give up its charter and shut the Y down. It wasn’t very long before we were having to guaranty the Y’s notes with our own assets. [Fellow Board Members] Martin Legget, Will Miller and I were the ones signing the note personally. We never had to perform on any of that but, I’ll tell you, they were tough times back then.
“The TownLake capital campaign did not raise enough money to cover the cost of building the facility,” he says. “As a result, it had to incur debt, and the cost of servicing that debt created difficulty in the Y meeting its operating expenses. Secondly, the Y at that time was essentially the Austin Downtown Health Club. It did not try, at the time, to define itself as a community-based organization, and it did not have a broad enough revenue base.
With the help of strong board members like Bomer, Legget and Miller, the Austin Y weathered one crisis after another throughout the 1970s. At one point, Bomer actually had to go on local television to defend the YMCA against allegations of financial wrongdoing in managing donated funds.
“In those years we had three failed capital campaigns [to build a swimming facility],” Bomer says, “and we used some of that money to support operations. I think that violated the trust of the donors, and it was a very bad thing.”
Despite its behind-the-scenes woes, the YMCA grew steadily if slowly throughout the decade under the guidance of Executive Director Jim Cawley. When he originally signed on in 1971 as Physical Director, the organization had yet to establish the breadth of activities now found at Y branches.
“It really had no organized program,” recalled Cawley in an American-Statesman profile at the time of his departure from the Y in December of 1981. “It was a facility-oriented, walk in and shoot baskets sort of place.”
During his tenure, membership mushroomed to 1,800 adults and 2,000 youth members with a list of programs that included gymnastics, martial arts, group exercise, adult and youth sports, and family activities such as Y-Indian Guides.
“In the last few years, the Y has grown out of its adolescent stage,”Cawley said at the time. “It’s grown up. It needs somebody who will maintain a high profile in the community, is good at public relations, raising big bucks and enjoys hitting the cocktail circuit.”
With the arrival of new Executive Director Jim Kenton in 1981, the YMCA of Austin’s new “Holy Grail” would become the construction of a swimming pool. Although the finances of the organization had stabilized and membership reached new heights, the YMCA was still, essentially, an upper-middle-class health club that did not endeavor to service the entire Austin community much beyond Youth Sports and its assortment of Gra-Y, Hi-Y and Indian Guides clubs. The passion for a pool became all-consuming. “Austin is one of the largest, if not the largest communities in the country where the Y doesn’t have a pool,” Kenton told the Austin Business Journal in January of 1988 after yet another failed capital campaign to build a pool.
The Austin YMCA had earned yet another dubious distinction, and it was getting old.
Turning the Tide
When Larry E. Smith visited Austin in 1988 to interview for the vacant Executive Director position at the YMCA, he saw a number of things that gave him pause: a YMCA organization with a spotty financial record and bad credit, a bickering board of directors, a history of failed fundraising campaigns… and a leaky roof in the gymnasium. But one other thing he saw was the pride Austin residents had in their city. Austin was different, but in all the right ways.
“One of the things I realized immediately, just from driving through the streets, was that this is a community that cares,” Smith says. “That means that a second-rate outfit wasn’t going to do well here. And you don’t have to be a first-rate to start thinking like one. You have to start where you’re at.”
Smith set about devising a strategic plan within his first sixty days in the job and, when it was done, he made his organizational goals clear to all: “It is my intent that we will be the finest human service agency in this community,” he says, recalling that initial decree. “We’re going to reach more people. We’re going to influence the lives of more children than we can even imagine. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to be the best. Not that there aren’t a lot of other good ones. But we’re going to be the best.”
As a career YMCA professional, Smith had spent virtually his entire life engaged in the Y. Growing up in Windber, Pennsylvania, in a family with two working parents, Smith knew first-hand the impact the YMCA could have on the life of a child. Having worked under some of the most legendary YMCA Directors in the movement, like Fred Hoshiyama in San Francisco and Dick Protzmann in Milwaukee, he had learned what made a YMCA succeed…or fail. Austin was his chance to put those lessons into action.
“What we decided in the strategic plan was that the emphasis on our YMCA was going to be on children – not fitness, not swimming pools – it was going to be on programs that would affect the lives of children,” Smith says. “And the new program that we were going to develop was After-School Childcare – both in schools with children whose parents could afford the rates and in schools where the kids’ parents couldn’t.”
Unfortunately, the YMCA didn’t have the money to start this operation, especially with bills to pay and a leaky gym roof to fix. So after a period of fiscal belt-tightening and administrative house-cleaning, Smith convinced the YMCA Board it was time to undertake their first “Partner of Youth” campaign. Far from vague, ill-defined capital campaigns of previous years, annual fundraising campaigns were staples in most metropolitan YMCAs, providing the funds for financial assistance and program development.
“The amount of money we set out to raise was enough to cover the cost of staffing the child development program for two years,” Smith said, “because that was how long we thought it would take to get the program up and running. And what happened was we raised the bar. Not only did we raise the $70,000, we raised $93,000, and suddenly we had a win. We started to develop the attitude that if we could conceive it, we could do it. We changed our whole outlook.
“[Metro Board Chairman] Mark Kiester and I made a conscious decision at that time that we would never again apologize for that which we have done or what we have failed to do. From this day forward, we’re going to talk about the future. Who we are today and where we’re going.”
That initial Partner of Youth campaign in 1989 created a momentum that has led to a string of triumphs over the past decades:
- In 1991, the YMCA of Austin opened the Southwest Family Branch in Oak Hill.
- In 1993, the long-awaited TownLake natatorium opened, boosting YMCA membership by 40% within the first year, and the Southwest YMCA Preschool opened adjacent to the Southwest Branch.
- In 1994 came the formation of the Child Development Branch (now called the Extend-A-Care YMCA), a new concept in non-facility-based management, designed to oversee Afterschool Child Care, Day Camp, Youth Sports and other Y programs.
- 1997 saw the construction of a new Metropolitan Office facility adjacent to TownLake and the opening of the North Park YMCA to serve North Central Austin.
- The opening of the East Communities YMCA in 2000 signaled the completion of a grueling six-year, $4.7 million capital campaign that pushed the organization to new heights and brought the first facility of its kind to the residents of East Austin.
- In 2002, the Northwest Family YMCA opened to an overwhelming reception, pushing past 7,000 members within its first six months of operation.
- We followed with the Hays Communities Y (2007) and Springs Family Branch (2008) as we expanded our footprint across Hays County.
Upon Smith’s retirement in 2008, new CEO James Finck set out to maintain the organization’s momentum while staying ahead of the curve, poised for the next new thing, the next challenge, yet holding true to our Mission. The Y had worked long and hard to earn the public’s trust. We had an obligation to utilize our reach and resources to take the lead in addressing multiple challenges facing our community.
Ahead of the curve – that has meant revising food guidelines for what we serve children in our programs before any other agency. That has meant removing unhealthy snacks from our branch vending machines before the school district made it happen. That has meant providing free swim lessons for first-grade students in underserved neighborhoods. That has meant helping cancer survivors put the pieces of their shattered lives back together.
We’ve continued to strengthen our footprint in the community through renovations at our Southwest and TownLake YMCAs. We began serving Bastrop, first with a program office in City Hall and now through a storefront Y on Main Street. We built an entirely new North Austin Y in collaboration with the City of Austin, replacing the former North Park Branch. And we completed Phase I of YMCA Camp Moody, formerly Rainbow Ranch, on a pristine 85-acre nature preserve along Onion Creek. We joined together with Extend-A-Care for Kids in 2020 to form the largest provider of out-of-school education and care in Central Texas.
While the growth continues apace, the real work of our YMCA involves listening to varied constituencies, being responsive to them, grasping opportunities, creating solutions, and – most central of all – working to get them all moving down the same road together in the same direction. Maintaining that standard has required that the Y become more flexible in understanding what our community needs, what the community wants. Has this been a challenge?
This is what has made our work so rewarding. People are beginning to understand our YMCA’s role in strengthening the fabric of our community. Every day, new partners approach us about collaborating to leverage our collective strengths. It has been fun and affirming to identify our commonalities, crystallize them into plans and actions and share them back with all those who make up our big Y family.
Our Association manages to reinvent itself year after year, decade after decade, and generation after generation. But staying ahead of the curve is not so much about what we say, but more about what we do. Our progress over the past 70 years has given us the faith to push the boundaries and raise our level of expectation even further.
We are faced with the shocking reality that children born today have a lower life expectancy due to chronic childhood obesity. Are we doing enough to fight the disease? Are we helping future generations build healthy habits and strong character? Are we leaving a better world than the one we found? These are just a few of the questions that keep us up at night.
Maintaining momentum is a simple yet powerful idea, but we know it must be done in a purposeful manner. Guided by our current Strategic Plan, we will continue to serve our cause of strengthening the Austin community by keeping our focus on Youth Development, Healthy Living and Social Responsibility in the years ahead.