Hello. Today is December 5th at 11:00 a.m. and we are at the Metro Y Chicago with the opportunity to Interview John Danielson, a great Y icon. And on behalf of the YMCA Retirement Fund and the Y history project, thanks for joining us. I also have John Preis and Kevin Washington in the room, which is a great special opportunity as well. So John thanks again for agreeing to share some of your stories, and I look forward to hearing them. My first question for you is what was your first YMCA experience?

Ms. Boulous

Mr. Danielson

Gra-Y club in Hampton, Connecticut. This is in 1930s.


Ms. Boulous

Was that as a participant?

Mr. Danielson

I was a child. I was as a participant, right. And so I was in the Gra-Y. I was in Hi-Y. And in those years I then went to be a junior counselor at Camp Hazen. This is all before I went to college, waterfront director and—it was in the war years, in the ‘40s. So those were my first experiences.


Ms. Boulous

Do you remember was that your first program experience, why you were there or what it was like and what activities you did back then?

Mr. Danielson

In those days Gra-Y would—it was part of the New Haven YMCA. And then they went out to the nearby suburban communities and started Gra-Y clubs. And we did certain activities. We went swimming at the Y, it took us down to New Haven. But I don’t recall all of it, but, but that was—and that’s how I got into camp, you know, through the Y.


Ms. Boulous

Okay, so how many years did you actually work for the Y?

Mr. Danielson

Forty-two.


Ms. Boulous

Forty-two total, and your first paid job was?

Mr. Danielson

Was an assistant youth work director in the Newton, Massachusetts YMCA.


Newton, Mass, okay. And then what was your last job?

Ms. Boulous

Mr. Danielson

My last job was deputy executive of the National YMCA—YMCA of the USA.


Who was the CEO at that time?

Ms. Boulous

Mr. Danielson

Well, Solon Cousins then Dave Mercer.


Ms. Boulous

Let’s talk about a mentor that you had in the Y and how that person maybe have influenced you throughout your career, mentor—or a few mentors.

Mr. Danielson

Yeah, I, I—when I reviewed that, I’d say that one was Elwood Vernon Rasmussen. He was president of the Cleveland YMCA, and I worked there 14 or 15 years. And he’s one that moved me up. He was really tough, but he was a great leader and I admired him.


John Preis

What was his position John?

Mr. Danielson

President. Then they called it General Secretary. And the other person would have been Bill Wright. He was a camp director at Hazen, and he directed me into the Y. He got me to go to Springfield. There’ve been a lot of other people, but those two stands out, you know, when I think about—you can’t have too many mentors.


Do you recall any particular experience when you think of the mentorship that either changed the way you thought of something such as I’m definitely going to go to Springfield College because of the way they insisted you go?

Ms. Boulous

Mr. Danielson

No, you know, my career as YMCA—my life and career at the Y and I guess I knew I’d go to Springfield, I didn’t do well in high school. So Bill got me in. But then I graduated with honors from Springfield, so I was happy about that!


Ms. Boulous

Perfect. Okay.

Mr. Danielson

But I don’t remember actually other things—you know, there was no lightning strokes.


Ms. Boulous

Well, it’s interesting, today’s Y world, a lot is about mentorships, you know. So thinking back through the 42 years and there was a growth time when the Y was growing and movement was growing, a lot of changes obviously in the last 20, 30 years, can you think of something that you believe was the most significant thing that happened in the Y movement? Not necessarily your career, but during your career, something that was big that happened with the Y?

Mr. Danielson

Yeah, I—it’d be hard to explain. I think the YMCA’s attention to the inner city and to the less privileged and some of the programs we developed in the late—in the late ‘60s and the ‘70s to work in the city. And I had a significant experience along the way. I was executive of an inner city YMCA. It no longer exists, the Addison Road Y. And it was a—I mean, it really was the inner city.

And I think the YMCA in those days really started to pay attention to that. Also the other thing that I’ve seen—that well, actually when I was a member of the urban group. I was at the first meeting in 1970. And there was 17 CEOs of the largest YMCAs in the country. They were all white Protestant males. And I think the urban itself and some of us took on the message of opening the Y up. And I think the Y did.

I’ve been retired a long time. I don’t know the statistics. But, but minorities and other people, folks, had an opportunity to—leadership positions. I think that’s a big change. And I, I do remember going to that first meeting, totally intimidated by all these big shots and sitting down—John Root was there then, you know, remember the name, and Solon Cousins and all and I was just a kid—I was the youngest member of a large city Y. I was 42 years old when I went to Boston.

And I think they, they—at that time the urban group did have a sense they wanted change. They wanted to serve the city. They also wanted to bring other people into apply for positions.


Ms. Boulous

I know, I interviewed Harold Mizele. He told that story I think. Was that the meeting that— when he came to the urban group to talk about the, the situation, was that the meeting he was at? Do you remember if he was there at your meeting?

Mr. Danielson

Yeah, I don’t remember that, but I—I don’t remember that specific, but I remember, Harold.


Yeah, ‘cause it was a great story. He brought his up in his interview as well, so that’s great. So when you look back on your great career, what do you think you’re most proud of? What kind of things [cross talking] you did, really did some great stuff?

Ms. Boulous

Mr. Danielson

You know, I think I was very proud of working in the Addison Road Y, inner city Y. The smallest Y, couldn’t raise any money. But we were trying to serve the community, and I think that helped me get some, some sense of—when we went to Boston, I think Boston was one of the leading YMCAs in serving the inner city community. But we had outreach workers, with our staff people translated the drivers’ test from English to Spanish.

We had juvenile justice programs, and I think that was important to me at the Y. It, it wasn’t as much—a lot of Ys judged upon the number of buildings they built or how much money. I don’t think we did that as much in Boston.


Ms. Boulous

Do you recall some of the challenges of being who you were in running those inner city Ys? Obviously in a time where that wasn’t very common probably.

Mr. Danielson

Yeah, it was hard. —fortunately I had some friends I made with other members of the, of the inner city. And they brought me along, and they were African-Americans. And they probably took pity on me, not knowing what I was doing and became some of my best friends in the Y—so yeah, I needed that help. I came from Newton, Massachusetts to the Hartford area of Cleveland.


Ms. Boulous

So what does the Y mean to you?

Mr. Danielson

Well, the Y has really been my life. So, you know, going Gray Y till I retired and even after I retired. I went back—I was asked back to do a few things, you know. So it’s just been my life and something I’ve been devoted to.


Ms. Boulous

So if you were talking to one of your family members and they said, “You work for the Y. What do you do?” What was that like?

Mr. Danielson

Yeah, they always ask me what I do.


Ms. Boulous

Right, so what kind of things would you say?

Mr. Danielson

Well, we, we serve the community, and when I was head of Y—we’d have to raise money to serve the community. But I always tried to emphasize the inner city. The YMCA sometimes, you know, people think of it as physical education. But it’s way beyond that. And I could quote things we did in the city, which I think impressed people for many years. And so that was a—that was the big thing I had.


Ms. Boulous

So on a, on a good day when you went home at night, how did you feel—what were the kind of things that you reflect back on?

Mr. Danielson

Well, I, I always worried about—I’ve always had to worry about money. The Addison Road Y was a small Y—my first branch executive at age 29. I, I—we didn’t have enough money. We couldn’t get money, and Rasmussen would beat on his branch executives. “How much money have you raised? How are you going to end the year?” You know, geez, in fact he’d open meeting one time, he had a whole sheet of paper and he’d write all of our names down—he had 28 branches. And the first one was Addison Road, and so I said, “Ras, can you start at the back of the list one time?” Geez, he—and maybe that’s why he brought me on I don’t know. But—so yeah, and even in the Boston Y, when I went there, at the Boston Y, you got to remember the times, the ‘60s, early ‘70s.

And we had some financial problems, and Boston never developed a lot of suburban branches. We had a lot of branches in the city. And so we had financial issues—the thing I would worry about would be finances a lot.


Ms. Boulous

How do you think you kept yourself motivated as the top worrier?

Mr. Danielson

I don’t know. I always got along well with my staff. I’ve, I felt I had a supportive staff and I tried not to be a big deal. And no, that kept me going too. And—but I never—nothing was ever catharsis, you know, it’s a job and you live with it and there are no big moments, you know.


Ms. Boulous

So if you could share any advice with leadership through to the Y movement of today, what might that be?

Mr. Danielson

You know, I know you had that question there, but don’t forget, I’ve been retired 25 years. So I don’t know really what’s going on. But I’d still suggest the YMCA serve the city, serve the inner city and assure we pay attention to less privileged groups. I mean, that’s something we really have to do. And not count just on going out to the suburbs, building new buildings, but make sure we serve the city.


Ms. Boulous

What would you say to your younger self if you knew what you knew today? What would you say to your younger self as if you were starting a career, a Y career? Anything that you would say back, I wish I did this?

Mr. Danielson

Don’t be so naïve, you know, about how things happen. A lot in the world is also political—in the YMCA too. Having worked nationally I saw some of that.


Ms. Boulous

And talk just a brief moment, a little bit about your national experience. So you had both Solon Cousins and Dave Mercer?

Mr. Danielson

Yeah, Solon asked me to come and I would—I was—you know, I had my own Y, but there were some personal circumstances. So, I decided to go. And I went without any job description. I didn’t even have a title. You know, Solon said John--well, you know Solon, we’ll run it together. You never run it together, I knew who would be boss.

But I went—and I went to national and it was a lot different than working at a local Y—and the nice thing about national, I don’t have to go home at night and worry about some kid’s going to die in one of my swimming pools. I mean, and that happened when I was in Boston. And a kid dies in a pool, you’re responsible. And particularly if it was in the inner city and you had to go to—and those were some tough times.

National didn’t—you didn’t have to do that, you know, and in national you’re always well paid. You always had the best of the benefits. And I understood that, you know. And so I could defend myself to my colleagues on that. And so—and you know, Solon was a great orator, and he brought people together. He made a lot of friends.And so he?—I was more internal management.


Ms. Boulous

If you could say one thing to Solon, what would you say? Or something to Solon Cousins.

Mr. Danielson

What would I say to him? Let’s see, so, you know, he was, he was an excellent orator. He paid attention to people.


Ms. Boulous

Dave Mercer came and you were still there for a period. What was that like?

Mr. Danielson

Oh, David was a much more laid back leader than Solon was. And he, he spoke with ease—he went to take—he took voice lessons and everything else, and he liked to mingle—he’d speak to anybody. I mean, he, he got out among the people. I never forgot I was the number two. And he said, “John, I think we’re going to have to make changes—we’re going to have finance office report to you.” I said, “No, no. I don’t want it. Finance officer has to report to the chief executive officer. And I don’t think you ought to do that David.”

And so I did—and he didn’t. But that’s something I believe. So my successors liked to be ?—but I just felt finance is an extremely important—Solon liked to have people report to him. But when you understand management too, some people didn’t report to me, but then they did—no, they were accountable to me. So you don’t need all the structures to put you in charge.


John Preis

When you first graduated from Springfield College, where did you go?

Mr. Danielson

Yes, yes.


John Preis

What, what brought you to Newton, Mass for your first job?

Mr. Danielson

Yeah, just for that. You got interviewed out of college and they went to locum, and I was just 22 or 23 years old and they wanted to hire me, for $2,900 a year.


John Preis

And you were a youth director?

Mr. Danielson

I was—when I came in I was assistant, but the guy left in a year and then I was youth director, yeah. And then we ended up with three people in our youth department. And in those days you had a youth department, youth directors and you had what—I don’t know what they call them now, physical directors. And they had their own societies and—it’s much more integrated now, program directors I assume.


John Preis

Right.

Mr. Danielson

Yeah, so that, that wasn’t any special—I mean, I wasn’t in demand.


John Preis

And you just got an apartment and lived in that community? Were you married then?

Mr. Danielson

Yes, yeah. Yeah, I was married and it wasn’t a lot of money.


Ms. Boulous

So do you recall at all when you got told about the YMCA Retirement Fund?

Mr. Danielson

You know, I went to look at my statement——in 1950 I signed up—how old—when did Retirement Fund start?


John Preis

1922.

Mr. Danielson

1922, in 1950, relatively new, I signed up for the Retirement Fund. And I remember—and I still have those papers. I had to look for them to show John. And the guy that was head of it then was the guy from St. Louis. What was his name, Brent?


John Preis

Well, there were two from St. Louis.

Mr. Danielson

Forrest Wharry. Anyway, I do remember that, and I do remember the retirement papers, and I signed all the stuff, you know, and it was a—even then it was the—I think it was seven five. I don’t know, I forget what it was, yeah.


Ms. Boulous

So what do you think you remember as a young person – we’re trying obviously to educate young professionals – save as much as you can, your going to have a great retirement. Any words of wisdom for someone starting out with the Y Retirement Fund?

Mr. Danielson

No, no. I—it’s hard to think of where—as if you were a—you know everything. You just got to work hard. I mean, I worked weekends. Went to camp weekends. Worked nights, you know, sometimes it’s hard on the family, but you can’t stop, it’s pretty hard work then.


Ms. Boulous

Do you have one favorite memory of something that happened? You opened a new branch, you saw kids swimming that you built the pool for?

Mr. Danielson

And so I guess I remember one story. It ended positive, but in Boston we had a lot of city Ys. And we had to close down one of them. It was the Mount Bowen branch. And so we had to close it, had no pool or anything. It was just an old community building. And we closed it down, and we were going to do the work still at one Y two miles away.

And I remember coming back to my office that day and my staff are outside my office, and my office was full of African-American people. What if I gave you—“and I said this without any approvals—“What if I gave you the building, and then we gave you the resources to help you run the building?”

Well, I think they were sort of amazed, and I had no authority to do that from my board. But I knew they—the board members, they would avoid that kind of controversy. And it worked out fine, and I felt that was a good solution, but the community and our finance director, went out and helped the executive. They hired their own executive.


Ms. Boulous

Is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you want to talk to us about?

John Preis

Talk a little bit about how golf played into your Y experience.

Mr. Danielson

Because Solon was a—was an avid golfer—he loved golf, and he started this group. And you think—he did something, but he invited eight people who loved golf, in his definition, loved golf and the YMCA. So in the late‘80s, we started this group that that went to play golf in Florida every year.

And, and now the thing I did is, I said, “Solon, you can’t just invite people down there. We got to have a seminar or something.” So then I end up making those seminars. That’s the thing I would do for Solon. Remember the guys who came?

And his old boss Robert, yeah.


Ms. Boulous

Yeah, Bob Neil.

Mr. Danielson

He loved it and he actually carried it on. And he carried it on, and it was a great experience and it was the one thing that, you know, some of these—I guess guys like Bev Laws and Edmonson and some of the others, pretty big people in the Y. And Peter then was president of the Boston Y. And so, you know, things like that, they’re sort of a little—but, you know, they liked it. And he didn’t—he never argued with me about, about—Solon, you can’t just go down and—sometimes he did get mad at me.

But yeah, but we enjoyed—in fact when Solon died, I—something I didn’t want to do, I had to give the eulogy at his funeral. And I said something about how he liked to play golf. Afterwards the pro from his private club, came afterwards and said, “You can come and play at my club anytime you want.”

And it was, it was hard, —one of the hardest things I had to do.


John Preis

Was the Y-USA structured to the best of your knowledge, was it structured that way? Or were you the first kind of chief operating officer?

Mr. Danielson

They always—they always thought that the chief executive ought to have a strong two person. Sometimes they just—you know, some people that run things, have to control it, that’s Solon. And he liked to have everybody report to him, but essentially I, I had no trouble with that because I knew what my role was and what I—but no, we moved the office, it was from, from New York. And they put things on the elevators in New York. They were all mad at him.

And he—and he’s been criticized for it ever since. That building is worth a mint now and all that stuff. So, you know, but so what? It’s gone, moved to Chicago. I’m not sure I would have gone to work if it was in New York. I mean, —I’ve lived in Greater New York in New Haven, and so anyway. And then we tried to reduce the number of field officers. In the old days, you know, Connecticut, Massachusetts had its own field office and, you know, they were all over the place.

And we got it down eventually, like I said, it was more manageable, to about five field officers. And, you know, that was a structure—a structural change we made.


Ms. Boulous

So you were responsible for the MRCs and all that?

Mr. Danielson

I was with the MRCs. And the other thing that changed was that the concept, if I understood, the concept that, the resources, they were enormous resources in our large city Ys. And those resources ought to be utilized by local YMCAs, for a fee. I had to deal with all the chief executives on that.

And that was criticized. I mean, the YMCA is not above second guessing themselves, let me tell you. And of course the big cities like it because they got money coming in. but I think eventually the money was coming in and some of the big city executives, they didn’t pay attention anymore. You want to be an MRC, the big city executive has to pay attention and not just listen—you know. So that was a, that was a major change that we did.


Ms. Boulous

You went full circle.

Mr. Danielson

Things I did—I think I was instrumental—I was the first chairman of the World Urban Network and was instrumental in starting that. At one time I was—do you know the name Employees Alliance? I was chairman of that for six years. Jimmy Guston ran that.


Ms. Boulous

Do you remember when you were the first chair? What was the impetus for that? Why did you guys start that?

Mr. Danielson

Well, you know, the—it was a feeling I had. Some—that doesn’t get recorded anywhere. Everybody all of a sudden takes credit for it now. But I felt that the chief executives of the large urban cities in the world ought to be one to interface internationally. It shouldn’t just be national staff for others. And that there were urban problems around the world that we ought to share together and how we can help each other.

I had to resign as chair though, and it went to national staff. And I guess I kept one card that I—and these are all leaders—these are names of the leaders of the large urban.


Ms. Boulous

Yeah, it says we found a friend and a leader in you, World Urban Committee, that’s awesome.

Mr. Danielson

So, you know, I guess that I’d have to say that was something I enjoyed and it’s still going today.


Ms. Boulous

Well, that’s the thing.

Mr. Danielson

About the what?


Ms. Boulous

The golf group that you guys started, it’s called the, the skunk group now, and it’s been going on for years. So the value of that is the networking. And as you know, the value of networking—

Mr. Danielson

I’m not sure what happened to it. I, I didn’t go. I couldn’t go though


Ms. Boulous

It still goes.

Mr. Danielson

I ended up going and Bob wanted to continue it, and he brought—and eventually it had other people other than the large city executives. But they all liked going. Bob did a nice job on putting it together.


Ms. Boulous

But I think where I’m going with that is that you started some things back then and they’re still going. So it’s pretty amazing. I know that your humble, but that’s stuff that has influenced how leaders take care of themselves too I think, because it’s tough to run a Y.

Mr. Danielson

Yeah, and I, I made some great friends.


Ms. Boulous

Anything else that you want to share? I mean, you’ve done so much for the Y Movement. My boss admires you.

Mr. Danielson

I’ve already said there ought to be a focus on the inner city—YMCA ought to emphasize and I think you have all that. You have the people that I—you know,


Ms. Boulous

Well, I will tell you, I’ve been doing these interviews and your name comes up most—every time when I talk about a mentor, usually your name is mentioned. And even John insisted on doing your interview.

Mr. Danielson

You know, I guess I’d say that—I’m not being humble, but I’m, I’m an ordinary YMCA career person. Gra-Y camps, you know, working as a branch executive, national staff. And, you know, there’s not exceptional, but that’s the career path and it’s a lot of Y’s have not reached—you know, that haven’t become major city executives. And all the good people in the Y that would qualify there. And so I’d be sure we don’t get elitist on this.


Ms. Boulous

Well, thank you for your time today. I appreciate it.