Oh, those days at the YMCA

Paul Stevens

Growing up in Fort Dodge, Tom Holmquist had a normal childhood until his father died unexpectedly in 1957 when he was 10 years old and “my mother who worked to support us did not know what to do with me.”

“She went to the YMCA for ideas and I was given a free membership to the Y,” he recalled. “My free membership turned out to be a life sentence. I grew up there and worked at the Y during high school. After graduating and attending Iowa Central, I transferred to the University of Kansas and earned my degree. I spent 34 years as a YMCA professional director, in Topeka, Kansas, back in Fort Dodge from 1979 to 1983 as executive director, and in Wichita Falls, Texas, until retirement.”

Holmquist is among thousands whose lives were impacted in a positive way by the actions of Fort Dodge business leaders back in 1891 who formed the city’s first Young Men’s Christian Association.

The Fort Dodge YMCA initially leased rooms in a building owned by Webster County that were probably used to provide temporary housing for homeless men, records show. Over the years, the Y became a gathering place for athletics and social events and today, under a new name, its successor focuses on physical training, recreation and exercise for 4,200 adults, senior citizens and youth who are members.

Technically, the YMCA of Fort Dodge no longer exists. It was dropped from the YMCA’s national roster because of policy differences in 2010 and was replaced by what is known as the Fort Dodge Community Recreation Center — known as The REC.

“We are continuing the long tradition of the YMCA in Fort Dodge by promoting healthy living, positive youth development and social responsibility,” said Randy Kuhlman, who was chairman of the YMCA board when the change occurred and is chairman of the REC. Both are nonprofit organizations.

“Like the former Fort Dodge YMCA, we provide scholarships for youth and families that are economically disadvantaged and do not have the financial means to pay the full membership fee. We will not turn a youngster away from being a member or participating in youth sports programs because he or she does not have the ability to pay. The Rec Center conducts a Partner in Youth fundraising campaign every year to help cover the membership costs for youth from low income families. Also, unlike most other YMCAs and private fitness centers, the Fort Dodge Rec continues to provide free childcare when mom or dad comes to the Rec to work out. This is a very significant benefit for families with young children. We also partner with local middle schools to provide a place for youth for swimming lessons. (Our new middle school does not have a pool.) We do this because it is important for kids to learn how to swim, both for fun and also safety reasons.”

Many baby boomers recall the YMCA from its days in the original YMCA building, opened in 1911 at a cost of $70,000 at 600 First Ave. N. on land donated by O.M. Oleson, and the Fort Dodge Family YMCA opened in January 1965 at 1422 First Ave. S. The original Y had Family Nights when women and girls could come and swim and participate with their family, Holmquist said. The new Y was designed with locker rooms and facilities for women and girls to cater to both sexes. The new Y was opened at a cost of $1 million through a fundraising project that included Ed Breen, Fred Seifer, Herb Bennett and Board Chairman George Gildemeister.

The boomers most often recall people like Glen Davies, who was the Y’s executive director from 1957 to 1966; Bruce Wilde, longtime athletics director who with his wife Jackie were pioneers for Fort Dodge volleyball; and Jerry Patterson, who served as youth and family program director, formed a strong youth baseball program ,and also coached the Fort Dodge Demons baseball club. “Jerry once told me his dream was to own a circus,” Holmquist said, “and now with ballpark Patterson Field and Y, he finally had one.”

It was Davies who led the lobbying for construction of a new YMCA at 15th and First when the original building was in desperate need of updates. By engaging the community and although enduring various setbacks, his daughter Connie Davies Goodman said, fundraising on the “new” Y was successful. “My dad was perfect for his career choice,” she said. “He loved community work, physical activity, people and most of all kids!” Davies died in 2013.

Wilde was hired by Davies to be physical director at the Y and he was active in establishing a volleyball program and the Makowaian Indian program. At 87, he lives in a Phoenix suburb and still plays volleyball, in a swimming pool. His wife, Jackie, who coached the Dodgers to two state championships during her 21-year career, died last year.

Renee Netland Rockow recalled playing volleyball at the old YWCA, with the coaching of the Wildes. “That was in the days just before organized high school girls competition,” she said. “They were great coaches and as the youngest on the team, I learned a lot about volleyball and life!”

John Clements, a retired Kansas City banker who frequented the Y in the late 1950s and early 60s, recalled that a youth membership cost $5 a year. Bob “Barney” Barnhill was the youth director then and was best known as the founder of the Makowaian Indian group — an all-male membership, later succeeded by Tawamana for females, the evolution of which was the Wawoyaka group for adults. “In addition to honoring the spirit of the ancient red man,” Clements said, “the groups replicated authentic American Indian costuming and collectables and participated in numerous area parades and events, including events out at the old Fort Museum.”

One of the city’s finest basketball players ever, Tom Goodman, an All-Stater at Fort Dodge Senior High who played at Iowa State University, got an early start on his game when his dad, longtime coach Connie Goodman, bought him a Y membership in the mid-1950s when he was in the third or fourth grade.

“I remember being so excited that I could walk into the Y without paying anything — now to be able to get dressed in the old dressing room down in the dungeon beneath the gym in my gym shorts and shirt and Converse basketball shoes,” Goodman said. “Then I would climb the 20 or 25 old wooden steps upward to the door leading out into this magnificent gymnasium. At least for a youngster in grade school, it felt magnificently like heaven. Two main baskets and four baskets on the side walls. What more could a pint-size kid like myself ask for?”

Goodman recalled taking a break for lunch at the Y lunch counter — chili was 50 cents — and before going home, stopping at the Y’s candy case in the basement to buy a package of Sugar Babies for 5 cents. “Off I would go, with my gym shoestrings tied together over my shoulder and my gym shorts inside the shoes and start my seven-block walk home through the alleys of Fort Dodge. … I learned a lot from the Y — how to meet new friends, how to get along with people, how to improve as a basketball player by playing against better players in junior college at the Y on Saturday afternoons when I was in junior and senior high school. That pass that my dad bought for me back in the ’50s was the greatest gift I ever received.”

Steve Lenier recalled spending lots of time in the YMCA game room and swimming pool. “But the biggest memory,” he said, “was day camp at Dolliver Park. Ride out and back on a bus each day for a week or so, hang out, do crafts, go hiking, sing songs. I discovered gooseberries for the first time on a bush there, loved ’em, especially when my grandma later made a gooseberry pie.” One of MaryJo Denklau’s favorite Dolliver memories was “learning how to rappel off the cliffs, hiking, learning about the Indian burial grounds and so much more.”

Many recall the popularity of the swimming pool at both Y locations. Sharon Neighbors’ father-in-law, Jim Neighbors Sr., was custodian at the old YMCA and told the story on how Kautzky’s Sporting Goods would bring its new wooden lures to the pool to try out their action. “Of course,” she said, “this was handy because they were located just across the street. So, the pool needed to be checked since occasionally a treble hook would be found!”

Today, the Fort Dodge REC has four locations, said Dave Pearson, executive director of the YMCA and Fort Dodge REC since 2006. Besides the main building at 15th Street, there is an exercise facility at Iowa Central Community College, a multipurpose cross training facility at the old Fareway Store location at Second Avenue South and Seventh Street, and a 24-hour fitness center at Fifth Avenue South and 21st Street purchased from Snap Fitness in 2015. Iowa Central owns the facility on its campus and does not allow those under age 18 to use it; the partnership led to the ending of the Fort Dodge Y’s relationship with the national YMCA, Pearson said.

Among programs designed for kindergarteners through sixth-graders — in partnership with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department — are basketball, flag football, martial arts, aquatic programs, soccer and baseball at the facility. Adults are offered more than 50 different classes that include Pilates, cycle, step, boot camp, yoga, core strengthening, Zumba and blast.

The REC has found heightened interest among baby boomers in using the pool for low-impact exercise and has increased the number of water fitness classes. “Something that has really skyrocketed is pickleball,” Pearson said, with a day league that often has people waiting and a night league. He said fitness classes are the most popular offering and that more men are joining them, with classes now 50-50, male-female.

Kuhlman said Fort Dodge REC is working with the city on a new location with the proposed Warden Plaza restoration project. The Recreation Center would be a $20 million to $22 million venture, he said, and the hope is to begin the fundraising phase this summer. “Our hope is, if all goes well, we would begin design and break ground as early as fall of 2020.”