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 over 60 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.
With the gleaming, new North Austin Y on Rundberg Lane and our bustling, newly renovated TownLake Y on Cesar Chavez...with our thriving After-School Childcare and Youth Sports programs... the YMCA of Austin will touch more than 150,000 lives this year.
But 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.