Y So Long

Ed Backus learned to swim there, in the 1930s.  Wini Balboni brought her kids there every Sunday.  Miggs Burroughs remembers meeting a few of the original Mickey Mouse Club members there.

“There” is the Westport YMCA.  It’s been a local institution for over 85 years.  And — no offense — a few Westporters have been members almost as long.

In 2009, Aqua Fitness classes are some of the Westport Y's most popular offerings

In 2009, Aqua Fitness classes are some of the Westport Y's most popular offerings

As it looks ahead to a new building, the Y is honoring all those who have stuck with the old one — any Y anywhere, for that matter — for at least 25 years.  Quarter-century members are eligible for the Ambassador Club, and will be honored at a ceremony September 17.

Ed Backus is not quite as old as the Westport Y — he’s pushing 80 — but he’s been a member for over 70 years.

“I think you had to be 8 to join,” he says.  As soon as he became a member, Ed learned to swim.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Ed says, “I used everything.  Back then it was probably the finest Y in the country, for the size of the town.  The pool was only 60 yards, but not many towns had a pool at all.  The Y was the center of activity for Westport.”

Athletic banquets were held upstairs, in what was then an auditorium with an adjacent kitchen.  There was bowling downstairs, with constant pickup basketball games in the gym.

Wini Balboni, a 50-year member, recalls throwing a hockey puck into the pool every Sunday.  Her 3 boys loved diving for it.  At night they’d be so exhausted, they went right to bed.

In the mid-1950s, Wini’s kids went to the Y’s Camp Mahackeno.  They swam in the Saugatuck River, dove underneath the enormous “Moby Dick” life raft, and swung from the Merritt Parkway bridge rope.

These days Wini uses the pool, and enjoys Aqua Fitness classes.  “It helps old ladies like me stay limber,” she says.

She tried the cardio machines, but hasn’t gone back.  “There are mirrors everywhere,” she says.  “I don’t like looking at myself when I exercise.”

Phyllis McCoy — whose 4 children became lifeguards after learning to swim at the Y — still does laps every morning, at 6:45.  She also takes an exercise class for seniors.

“The staff is the most caring group I can think of,” says Phyllis.  “With the slightest problem, they bend over backwards.”

Camp Mahackeno campers, back in the day. Some may still be Y members.

Camp Mahackeno campers, back in the day. Some may still be Y members.

As for Miggs Burroughs — a member for 53 years — his 1st memory is when Jimmy and Darlene of the Mickey Mouse Club (and maybe Annette) came to the Y.  “We all gathered in the gym.  I think they showed a movie, and then they danced or sang.”  Miggs has “no idea” how the Westport Y rated a visit from those megastars.

These days, Miggs goes to the fitness center a few days a week at 5:45 a.m.  He also uses the pool.

Miggs says he’s remained a member for so long because the Y is “such a great community resource and center of activities.  It hasn’t yet lost its hometown personality and charm.  Going to the Y today feels exactly like it felt 50 years ago.”

Ahem.  The Y — as great as it is, and despite the 1970s addition — is showing its age.  How do the Ambassador Club members feel about the proposed move to Mahackeno?

“The people I speak with — families with children — are about 50 percent not in favor,” Phyllis says.  “I don’t know if they can get the financial support.”

As for the location:  “I don’t know how I could have survived all that taxiing of several kids, if I had had to go all the way out on Wilton Road,” Phyllis adds.

Miggs feels differently:  “Some things will change with the new Y, in terms of the building itself.  But if they can transfer the same spirit of community inside the walls, then I’m all for it.”

3 responses to “Y So Long

  1. I have great memories of the Westport YMCA growing up– mostly playing basketball after school as a kid and then Saturday afternoon/Sunday morning with the old men…..in which I am now considered an old man! I loved the location of the YMCA growing up. I could ride my bike or walk to it from home. I am sure Wilton Road will be great too, but I am glad it was located downtown in my YMCA days.

  2. I have many wonderful memories of the Westport YMCA as youngster growing up in Westport.

    I started at around 5 years old taking swim lessons and going on Saturday morning to the Gym & Swim program while my dad, Ed Backus, went to work out or play squash.

    From there I had a brief encounter with the Water Rats swim team. I made the team and when Mike Crine told me I had to wear a Speedo, I quit…

    From there it was Camp Mahackeno as a camper, then CIT, and finally a member of the summer camp staff in 1984, 86 & 87.

    Now, I still live in Westport and manage the Lakewood-Trumbull YMCA. My children attend the YMCA After School Program at the Westport YMCA and utilize the YMCA facility for fitness & swimming activities.

    The Westport YMCA is wounderful place and I am very excited to be a part of the Westport YMCA when it opens it’s new facility.

    Jeb Backus

  3. Wendy Crowther

    I’d like to add a perspective from someone who was once a Y employee – it was also a great place to work. I began working at the Y in 1981 as a part time worker at the “Control Desk” – a position that today would be called a Member Service Rep. When I left the Y 13 years later, I was its Health and Fitness Director (its state-of-the-art fitness center was the best in town at the time). The Y even helped me fund my Masters Degree in Exercise Science. I have the Y to thank for getting my fitness career off to a great start – I’m still in the field today.

    I remain in touch with many of the people I worked with during those years (Bob Knoebel, Claire Sacramone, Rob Nathan, & Ron Kalban) and I love running into other former staffers who still live in the area. Many of the folks who are members of the Ambassadors Club today are familiar to me – I either welcomed them to the Y each day or helped them get fitter in the weight room or on the courts. It’s amazing how often I run into them on the street – we greet one another like we were old college buddies.

    As fond as I am of the Y and the building in which it still lives, I know first hand how hard it was then to meet the needs of a 1980s crowd – it must be so much tougher now. I hope it gets the chance to grow into a new space so that it can continue to serve our community in the same wholesome, positive way it always has. The Y is truly a remarkable organization. I will be forever appreciative of the way it helped me grow in body, mind, spirit and career.