150 years down, 150 more to go

By Jamie Swinnerton
Tompkins Weekly


It’s not often a birthday comes along sooner than expected. But for Frank Towner, CEO of the YMCA of Ithaca and Tompkins County, the organization’s 150th birthday managed to sneak up on him. Now, the YMCA board and Towner are ready to go all out to make this sesquicentennial a great one. It was Towner, a man typically asking the question ‘What’s next?’, who made the discovery while taking a look back at history.

“We had not planned ahead for this,” Towner said, “and always looked at our incorporation as 1886 until last October when I opened up a history book – A short history of Tompkins County by Jane Dieckmann – that right in the front couple of pages bullet-pointed significant events in Ithaca’s history and Tompkins County, the YMCA’s first meeting at a Cornell Library reading room, which was downtown, happened in 1868.”

Towner saw it as an opportunity to celebrate the many years of community connection and service that the YMCA has offered Ithaca and Tompkins County. The YMCA is more than a gym and swim, he said, it’s a part of the community that is sustainable, as apparent by their 150-year history.

After taking this new information to the YMCA board of directors he found an enthusiastic supporter in board member Richie Moran. It was Moran, who has been on the board for about eight years, that suggested 150 events to celebrate 150 years.

“I laughed and said ‘Coach, that’s a big goal.’ He said ‘Yeah, we can do it though,’” Towner said.

Moran’s idea was inspired by a similar anniversary he had celebrated at a yacht club where he was the Commodore. During the club’s 100 year anniversary they celebrated with 100 events.

“I thought it would be a real nice thing to do,” Moran said. “Both for the community and the YMCA.”

Towner was in complete agreement.

“So, we took that idea and redistributed it to say we would have a 150th celebration, that would include 150 events,” Towner said. “Those events don’t always need to be huge.”

The main celebration won’t be until November, closer to the actual day of the first meeting in 1868. But smaller events throughout the year are already coming together. On Saturday, Feb. 24, the YMCA is hosting Tompkins County’s Largest Euchre Tournament with 150 players vying for a $150 prize.

Community members looking to be part of the organizing and celebrating have a few options. Several committees are being put together to plan the 150 events, organize the November celebration, and look through historical documents to make a timeline of the YMCA’s history in Tompkins County. The historical information, Towner said, will come from records the YMCA already has, records from the History Center in Tompkins County, records from the national archive of the YMCA, and records from the Dewitt Historical Society.

“So, between these four resources the historic committee should be able to gather and put together a timeline for what we’re going to pull together in November as the celebration, a dinner recognizing the Y, people that have made a significant contribution to the Y and to the community,” Towner said.

After pulling out several boxes of records from storage at the YMCA, Towner said they found handwritten minutes from YMCA board meetings, pictures and plaques, and all sorts of historic memorabilia. They’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the organization’s history.

A meeting will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 13 at 5 p.m. for anyone interested in joining one of the committees. There is no limit to the number of volunteers the committees will take, Towner said.

“But we need to also do a lot of small events that recognize the community and provide an opportunity for people to see that they can be involved,” said Towner.
Community art projects, planting 150 trees or flowers. These are just some of the ideas that Towner has already. It’s all up to the creativity of the volunteers on the committee.

“The world is open to us to do whatever we want to do,” he said.

Moran, who became involved with the YMCA after retiring from coaching at Cornell University, is in complete agreement with Towner. When he was no longer coaching, advising, recruiting, and trying to raise a family, Moran joined several community organizations. He wanted to give back to the Ithaca community. Volunteering and community betterment is a big thing in his family, Moran said. Now he wants the rest of the community to see the opportunity that he sees in the 150 year celebrations.

“We definitely want the community to be very involved,” Moran said. “The history of the YMCA is very interesting. You know, it’s touched many people.”

But celebrating 150 years of the YMCA in Tompkins County doesn’t just mean looking backward. For Towner, this is an opportunity to show the community what the YMCA can be, and do, in the future. The building that the organization currently occupies was built in the 1980s. Towner said a lot of people can still remember the building they were in downtown. The “new” building may not be 150 years old, but it is in need of some upgrades and repairs. When Towner talks about the YMCA it’s clear that he sees endless potential for the organization, but that’s a potential that can only be realized with the help of the community.

“If we are going to go forward with the YMCA development to serve the community by having a large childcare area, improved locker rooms, improved welcome center, possibly a pool for health, we really need to get the word out to the community that the Y is sustainable,” Towner said. “The Y’s longevity is still there and if the support is in the community can we go to the next step? So, I’m going to ride this 150 wave as best I can to really get the word out that we are sustainable. We want to grow, we want to do things, and will the community support that?”

His goal has always been focused on finding what the community needs and filling that gap. While celebrating 150 years of service, he wants the community to think about the next 150 years of service too.

“For me personally, it’s what’s going to happen next,” he said. “I’m fortunate and feel honored and blessed to be in this position at this time in the history of this organization. Since I’ve started in my director’s role, my CEO role, I’ve said ‘What are we going to do next?’ We’ve been here, we’ve been a staple, we provide a service, we have some amenities, we have a pool, we have a gym, we have a racquetball court, but what could we do more?”

For the rest of 2018, the YMCA of Ithaca and Tompkins County is asking the county to help the organization celebrate the 150 years it has been a part of the community. But, perhaps more importantly, it is asking the county to help the organization sustain for 150 more.