August 31, 2017
Begin interview. Today is August 31st, 2017, Eastern Standard Time. And the time is 10 AM. This is Ed Toole on behalf of the YMCA Retirement Fund interviewing John Coduri. Mr. Coduri, thank you for agreeing to share your story with me today.
Good morning, Ed. I’m glad to be here.
Great. My first question for you is, what was your very first YMCA experience?
I remember, before I was even a member of the YMCA, attending—they used to hold an annual gym circus. Like a gym exhibition show. And I remember, as a young boy, perhaps at seven or eight, sitting in awe as the older boys and girls performed various gymnastics events. I then ultimately joined when I was twelve years old in 1959 just to play in one of their youth basketball leagues.
Where was that?
Here in the Westerly YMCA. For a while, it was the Westerly YMCA and then they thought they should—we’re really a two-state community with Stonington and Pawcatuck, Connecticut nearby. So once they added a swimming pool to the Y late in 1959, they changed the official name to the Westerly-Pawcatuck YMCA. And then once there were more than the one facility, they became the Ocean Community YMCA.
Great. So take me a little bit through your career and how you got your first job in the Y. And then maybe what those positions were up until you retired, and when that was?
It was kind of—I never really initially planned on working for the YMCA, although I had been very active as a youth member of the Leaders’ Club and the gymnastics team, and worked at the YMCA’s day camp, Camp Watchaug, in Charlestown, Rhode Island. But when I graduated from college in 1969, I then enrolled in a four-year PhD program in microbiology.
I got about two months into it and I just thought: right now is not the time that I want to go to school for another four years. And, coincidentally, the Y had an opening here in Westerly for a new position called the Assistant Physical Education Director. So I applied and, lo and behold, they hired me and I served in that position for two years.
And then after two years, I was intrigued. Actually, after one year, I was intrigued with the idea of teaching in public education, and so during my second year of work, I informed my general secretary, the old name for executive directors and presidents, that I was taking some education classes to become certified to teach in a public school. And I did get that requirement, and so I left in 1971 and I taught high school chemistry, physiology and biology for two years in a local, regional school district.
Then the position of Physical Education Director opened here at the Westerly-Pawcatuck YMCA, and I thought: well, I’ve worked at the Y for two years; I taught in public education for two years; I’ve seen both sides of it and I like the YMCA experience a little bit better. I enjoyed teaching very much so, but I thought the Y was maybe where I wanted to make my career.
So I applied and was hired in June of 1973 as the physical education director.
Talk to me about how your career progressed and what kept you involved with the Y?
Well, I stayed here at the Westerly YMCA, in that position as physical education director, for ten years. I had looked at other positions. One in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one in Leominster, Massachusetts. In Leominster, I really was very interested and was looking forward to the opportunity to work with the executive there, Phil Hand, but then they withdrew the position.
There were two communities that really couldn’t get along, I guess. And they didn’t want to form one YMCA, but that was the goal. And so they withdrew the position and shortly after that I guess Phil got upset and he left his job as president of that association. So I stayed in Westerly. And I was getting restless.
I had looked at a full-time camp director position also here in Rhode Island, a resident camp position. And I was interested in camping. Part of my responsibilities as the physical education director was to direct the YMCA’s day camp. The YMCA’s day camp here in Westerly was more like a day camp but in a resident camp outdoor setting.
They owned thirty-five acres on a beautiful fresh water lake in Charlestown, Rhode Island. And so just about that time, when I was thinking: I’ve been here and done pretty much what I wanted to do, the then executive director Bob Cook resigned after serving for nineteen years and took a job as the president/CEO of the newly formed Southeastern Connecticut YMCA, which was formed by a merger of the former Norwich, Connecticut and New London, Connecticut Associations.
So I was hired as the president/CEO in the fall of 1983, and I stayed in that position for sixteen years until the opportunity came to apply for the national executive director position of what was called the Association of Professional Directors of YMCAs in the United States. During my tenure, we simplified it to the Association of YMCA Professionals. I served in that capacity for ten years until I retired, effective January 1st, 2000. I’m sorry, I started January 1st of 2000, but my retirement became effective on January 1st, 2010.
Talk to me a little bit about why the interest in the AYP job after a career in operations?
Well, probably one of the main thrusts was, I was very active in APD/AYP throughout my career because I had had three different positions but in the same association here in the Westerly-Pawcatuck area. And so APD/AYP gave me an opportunity to network and connect with colleagues not only throughout southeastern Connecticut and southeastern Massachusetts but nationally as it went to regional and national conferences.
So I was active in APD and then I served in various roles at the chapter and in the regional basis, and I was elected to the National Board of AYP and served a three-year term as a regional representative. So I was fully aware of the operations of AYP and what was involved. I worked closely with my predecessor Jim Stooke, who had been the executive director there for a number of years.
And so when the opportunity came along, when Jim was going to be retiring he was about ten or eleven years older than I was at the time. And I thought, well maybe this is something that could be a welcomed change. I had been here at the Westerly-Pawcatuck YMCA for thirty plus years and I thought, well, I was thinking about retiring sometime in my early sixties. Let me apply.
And so I did, not knowing—I talked with my chair of the board of directors here at the local Y, and I said, “Dave, what do you think? I was thinking about applying for this position and so on. I’ve been very active.” And he said, “Well, seems like it’s coming at a good time in your career.” I was fifty-two at the time.
And so I applied and sent a letter off to Ron Sargent from the YMCA Retirement Fund, who’s chair of that selection committee. And they asked me to come back for an interview, and then they offered me the position. So I kind of wrapped things up here in Westerly through the last four months of 1999. My wife and I packed everything up and we moved off to Bloomington, Minnesota in late December of 1999. And stayed there for ten years in that position. And it seemed like the ten years was about the right amount of time. I had just turned sixty-two in May of 2009, and so I thought ten years is good. I’ve accomplished a lot and so I thought this was a good time to retire.
Great. During your time in the Y, tell me about a mentor or mentors you had in the Y and how that person or persons influenced you?
Well, while I was working, probably the two people—actually, one was a mentor even before I began my employment. While I was a volunteer in the Leaders’ Club, the Junior Leaders’ Club here at the local YMCA, the physical director whose name was Ken Isherwood. He had been the physical director here for about eight years and he went on to work in Detroit, Michigan in a variety of roles and we still stay in touch.
We’re good friends. He’s eighty-two years old now. He’s in good health, living in the greater Detroit, Michigan area. But he really laid the groundwork at a lot of the principles that he instilled in us, as active members of the Junior Leaders’ Club, I carried with me throughout my wide career.
The second individual would be my first immediate supervisor, when I worked here at the local Y as the assistant physical director. Bob Brockway was the physical director at the time and Bob had been here—he’s been hired to replace Ken Isherwood when Ken left in 1965. And so Bob had been here for about six years and we worked together for two years.
We had a lot of fun. We did some crazy things. I think we ran a good physical education department. Instigated some new programs and activities, especially in the area of physical fitness. And so Bob was a great mentor to me, professionally, as I began my term as the physical education director here at the local Y.
Great. Also, during your career, what do you believe was the most significant thing that happened within the YMCA Movement? Or significant things that happened during your long career?
Obviously, when I began back in 1969, YMCA leadership was overwhelmingly a male-dominated organization. And so over the course, from 1969 to 2009—over the course of those forty years, there was a huge influx of female staff members. That brought about very significant diversity. Women in the workplace—not only in the YMCA—have changed a number of Movements, especially the Y. And I don’t know what the actual percentages are, but it was very rare to have a general secretary or executive director be a female in the late sixties.
But by the time I retired, there were a greater number of females than had been seen over the past forty years. A couple of years ago, I’d been writing a periodic column for the retired, it’s called AYR Reports. But now they changed the name of it, because they’ve changed the name of the retired group to now YMCA Alumni.
But I wrote a periodic article for that and in one of them I focused on what’s happening to the American male? And why you see fewer males applying to law school and medical school and being valedictorian of their high school classes. And you see it even within the YMCA. There are shrinking numbers of males in major leadership positions within the YMCA Movement. I looked at it within the YMCA first, but then I looked at it in society in general.
And I was amazed when I found that major professions that had been dominated by males—medical and legal—were now, the law schools and medical schools were being dominated by females. I was just curious as to why that is? And even amongst personal family members, I’ve used the expression, “The Demise of the American Male.” What’s happened to the American Male that they no longer aspire to positions of significant leadership in a variety of genres? Like the YMCA, the legal profession and the medical profession.
Anything else? So you’re talking about women leadership expanding within the Y. What other significant events do you remember happening during your career?
When I got on board as a professional staff member, the Y’s interest in physical fitness had already been launched under—you can go way back to President Kennedy’s Council on Physical Fitness and so on. And the work of Dr. Cooper at the Fitness Institute in Dallas, Texas. I was very interested in that. I became certified in the Y’s way to physical fitness, the Y’s way to a healthy back. And those programs, for a number of years, expanded and now, of course, you’re into spinning and so on and so forth.
I think the older Baby Boomer generation, of which I am a part—I’m in the second year of the Baby Boomers, born in 1947. The older part of the Baby Boomer generation is very interested in personal and physical fitness.
I’m not so sure that the younger members of the Baby Boomer generation or even the subsequent generations, Generation X, Generation Y, and so on, are as—I don’t know if obsessed is the right word to use but—concerned with their personal health and fitness as the older Baby Boomers have been. Even throughout their life now—the oldest Boomer is seventy-one-years old.
So when you think about your career, what are some of the things that you are most proud of? What were some of the big achievements?
Locally, at the Westerly-Pawcatuck YMCA, I was very proud of a number of things. But two that stand out is we began a heritage club. You know, an endowment development program because it became clear that even though the Y had an endowment fund, contributions to that just kind of occurred by accident. There wasn’t a formal approaching of individuals and trying to lay the groundwork for the future financial stability of the association.
And that’s really what you’re doing in a heritage club. It could be ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty years before that tree bears any fruit. I’m proud to say that there were two early members of our heritage club that each game $600,000 to local YMCA. So $1.2 million from just two individuals from women we had approached a number of years ago and they attended our annual heritage club dinner. And so I felt very good about that.
And second, we had a $3.2 million capital campaign near the end of my tenure here and $3.2 million isn’t large by any stretch of the imagination. But for a YMCA, who at the time had a budget of $1.2 to $1. 5 million, trying to raise double that in an annual campaign, in a small community where we understood what the pecking order is for philanthropy—that hospitals, of course, are at the top of the food chain. Maybe the public library was a little bit ahead of the YMCA, but we felt good about that and we raised the money, we built the addition and I felt very good about that.
When I got to AYP, I remember early on an individual, Parker Lansdale, had spoken to me and said, “You know, John, this is quite unusual that Springfield College has just hired a new president.” And Dick Flynn had come on board maybe eight or nine months before I was hired. And shortly after I began my tenure at the YMCA of the USA, hired a new CEO and then the Retirement Fund. Harold retired and John Preis was hired and so he said, “That’s very unusual that all four, within twelve months, all four”—Ken Gladish at the YMCA of the USA was the fourth, and he said, “That’s an unusual opportunity for the four of you. You’re kind of all new at your national roles.”
So we talked about how maybe it would be a good idea if periodically the four of us kind of came together. One, to get to know each other, because we were new in our national roles. And to share information. So for the first couple of years, we rotated and each of us hosted the other three over a two-day period. It was an overnight coming together.
And then after we had visited everyone, and we knew everyone and what their “shop” was like, we then continued to meet at least annually. And Dick Flynn hosted that, mostly, at his home on the campus of Springfield College. But we stayed in touch and we came together at least once a year. I think that was a good thing. And Parker was right that it brought together the leadership and it strengthened the relationship and the working relationship between the four organizations.
So throughout my ten years I was very comfortable just picking up the phone to call John Preis, to call Ken Gladish and then Neil Nicoll and so on, if I had a question or a concern. If there was something that was happening that I thought maybe we should talk more about it. And I think that was a good thing. I felt good about the role that I played in that.
And then another item that stands out is, over the course of ten years, we had five national AYP conferences. And that’s a lot of leg work. And we were fortunate that we had wonderful volunteers who stepped up to chair the conferences, outstanding committees that we worked with. But I was very satisfied.
I felt proud of the events themselves and the experiences that were provided to colleagues who attended them each year. And it was four or five hundred AYP members came to the national conferences. Some years we had over six hundred. I felt very good about that. Those are the items that kind of quickly stand out.
That’s great. What does the YMCA mean to you?
Well, it’s been in my blood since I was twelve years old. It means it’s a place in communities. And that’s what really amazed me as I traveled around the country. And I felt so fortunate in my years at AYP to go around the country and to see—I’d go to chapter meetings, but whenever I was at a chapter meeting I would always come in a day early, so I had the chance to tour YMCAs. It was amazing.
You’d walk into the Y, and if I hadn’t seen the sign out front, in many instances I could be in a Y anyplace. And it just kind of reinforced all the good work that was being done in Albany, New York or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Tulsa, Oklahoma. Oklahoma City. It was being done throughout the country. And that’s a wonderful thing, that the Y has its roots throughout so much of the American country.
So the mission and the values that we’re instilling, that’s what I feel great about. That I played a small part in my role here at the Westerly YMCA and then a national role through AYP. And that hopefully I played a role in helping the Y Movement continue its work in changing the lives of youth, adults, and families in communities throughout the country. That’s why it’s an organization that deserves community support, because it continues to do great things.
You mentioned AYR changing a little bit to YMCA Alumni. Obviously, there are changes going on with AYP and a different partnership in a different way. I’m sure you have some thoughts about all of that. Would you like to share some?
Sure. I do have some thoughts. And first of all, let me just say that it’s been handled very well by the volunteer leadership of AYP. And I commend them for the work. Some difficult challenges face the professional society and I’m glad to see that it’s a partnership with Y-USA. Y-USA obviously brings tremendous resources to the table and from what I see so far, it looks like the local chapters of AYP will continue to be in existence. And there will still be volunteer leadership opportunities for members.
And that’s one of the real pluses I always saw for the professional association. That staff for the YMCAs would have an opportunity to develop their leadership potential through AYP by becoming an officer or on the board of that local chapter. And maybe they would have the opportunity to go on to a national position. Harry Rock, who just retired as a very successful term as a director of YMCA Studies at Springfield College—I remember when I kind of twisted his arm to run for election for a local AYP chapter position.
And I said, “Harry, between you and me, the person who you’re running against has been an officer already, has a lot of physical exposure. He’s probably going to win.” And Harry said well, “Okay. If you guarantee me that the person I’m running against will win, I’ll throw my hat into the ring.” Well, the other person did win, but three months into his tenure, he accepted a job in Colorado and he had to leave Southeastern Connecticut.
So I had to call up Harry and say, “Harry, Len’s moving to Colorado. We need someone on the national board as the regional rep. So you were the other candidate and we’d like to have you onboard.” He’s kind of joked over the years that because of that he really got involved in AYP, served on the national board, and he looks back and says, “What a great opportunity that I had, doing that.”
So I think with the assistance of the YMCA of the USA and AYP being under their umbrella is a good thing. My major concern is that there not be a loss of independence of thought. That someone who is a member of AYP or even works for AYP will be hesitant to say, “No. This is the way it should be done,” in any discussions with YMCA of the USA on how something is going to happen.
Or that they won’t be afraid to suggest radical new ideas. Some people may not realize that it was through the professional society—AYP right now, or what’s going to be called YPN, I think. Y Professional Network—that it was through that organization that the idea of a YMCA Retirement Fund came up. It was through that organization that the idea of a certification process for YMCA staff was put into play.
It was through that organization that the idea of including all YMCA professionals in the society. Because initially it was only the general secretaries who were a part of it. Physical education directors and all the youth workers weren’t allowed to be members of the professional society. So that’s my major concern. I’d just hate to think that that independence of thought would be lost, if they’re under the umbrella.
If that’s not a concern, then I think it’s a wonderful move. It will perpetuate the existence of the professional society going forward.
Great. If we could gather all the leadership in the entire YMCA Movement and you could share any advice with them today, what would that be?
All of the leadership?
You get them all. Like back in the big AYP conferences again. You’ve got the mic.
Never be afraid to change. Never be afraid to look for new opportunities. I guess, the worst thing that can happen to the YMCA Movement, at both local, regional and national levels, is to become complacent with what we’re doing. Well, this is the way we’ve done it for the last forty years, then we’re going to continue to do it that way. Because there are different ways of accomplishing the same goal.
And sometimes—look at the physical fitness world. It seems like every five to ten years there’s a new craze, fad that comes. There’s the step program, where you step onto these platforms. There was the WISE Way to physical fitness. There’s spinning and so on. There are just different ways of promoting lifelong physical fitness.
For Y directors around the country, sometimes just a new way of doing something invigorates not only the association but the participants feel good that “oh, yeah. This is kind of new. I like that.” The end result might be the same, but never be afraid to look at something a little bit differently and to take a risk.
Someone a lot brighter than me said a long time ago that experience is just another word for all the mistakes we’ve made. So we can’t be afraid to try something and to fail at it. It will at least let us know what doesn’t work and maybe that will get us to the point of what will work. That would be one of my major suggestions.
Great. Any others?
No. That’s a good one.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you would like to share? Some other thoughts on the Movement or career or advice, impact?
Sometimes people have asked me what was like spending three quarters of your Y career, thirty of my forty years was spent at one association. And looking back I see pluses for that. I see some drawbacks, but that’s where as I said earlier, getting involved in the professional society made a difference. It exposed me and I had an opportunity to network with other Y professionals. I didn’t work with them, per se, on a day to day basis, but I worked with them as part of the chapter board and as part of the national board of AYP. And so it’s not that I planned to only stay here.
As I told you earlier, there are a number of opportunities that I explored and applied for. Some I didn’t get invited back to. Others I wanted, like the Leominster, Massachusetts association. I was offered a job in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but it just didn’t seem like a good fit at that particular time. Would it have made my career more meaningful? I don’t think so, because in my thirty years here in the local YMCA, I had three different positions. So it’s not as if I was in one position.
Now having said that, and you asked me earlier about any advice I might give to Y professionals and something now comes to mind. I think throughout my career there was an expectation that if you didn’t become an executive director or CEO, then you really hadn’t “made it” within the YMCA Movement. And I think that’s too bad. That if somebody is in the program field and is happy in the program field and administration is not their thing. I’ve seen a number of Y professionals go into administration and they really weren’t happy at it.
And then I looked back at when I used to go to leaders’ school up at Silver Bay YMCA in New York on Lake George every summer. One of the things that I reflect back on is, the number of Y staff who were Y directors or on the staff of the leaders’ school and many of them had been program personnel throughout their entire careers. And at the time they were in their late fifties, still working in the program arena, and they were legends within the Y Movement.
And so the challenge, I think, for some of the volunteer leadership and the CEOs within the Movement is, that if there’s someone who belongs in program, how can we financially and benefits-wise keep them happy? Maybe give them some additional responsibilities, something that keeps them within the program arena. Otherwise we’re going to lose them to administration and they’re not going to be happy and the program arena is going to suffer.
So that was something that I thought was—near the end of my career as I looked back, I remember a number of individuals who made that jump because they were made to feel that they hadn’t really been successful if they hadn’t moved in to that CEO arena.
Great. Final thoughts?
No. I appreciate the opportunity to be part of this legacy project. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity while we’re still above ground to capture our thoughts and experiences. Because wouldn’t it be nice if we had done this fifty years ago, with some of the people that were senior members of a Y profession when I was just beginning my career back in 1969.
And we had their words rather than some of their writings that we could listen to what they had to say. I applaud the Y Retirement Fund for doing this and for you, Ed, for taking the time to travel all over the country to capture what everyone has to say. So thank you for giving me the opportunity.
Thank you, John. Thanks so much.