Remembering Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson — longtime executive director of the Westport Weston Family YMCA, and the man who over 40 years brought it from a small institution into one of the town’s most robust organizations — died Wednesday on Cape Cod. He was 91.

Amy Sanborn passed along the sad news — and a very in-depth piece from the Westport Y blog, in 2014. The Y at that time was still downtown, where Bedford Square is now. The story said:

Matt Johnson came to our Y in 1952 as a fresh-faced college grad from upstate Connecticut. He started as a supervisor of the Y’s youth and adult physical programs, taking on more responsibility over the following 2 decades. In 1970 he was named executive director, a position he filled with great accomplishment until his retirement in 1989. The longtime Weston resident remains an active part of our Y family to this day….

It’s safe to say that no other Y staffer presided over more change at our Y over more years than Matt Johnson. Matt was instrumental in bringing sports and recreational opportunities to Weston youth, efforts that ultimately led to our Y serving all our Weston neighbors as the “Westport/Weston YMCA.”

Matt Johnson (standing) with (from left) YMCA president George Dammon, CBS News anchor (and Weston resident) Douglas Edwards, and 1st Selectman John Kemish.

Matt also oversaw the greatest development of our Y facility since its opening a half-century before: the construction of the Weeks Pavilion in the 1970s, which gave our Y its Stauffer Pool, racquet courts, men’s and women’s health centers, locker rooms and an indoor track ….

Matt then laid the groundwork for the next phase of our Y’s evolution at our downtown facility: the conversion of the town’s central firehouse into a 2-level Fitness Center that to this day boasts the original brass pole used by generations of local firefighters.

After recalling Matt’s encounters with guest speaker Jackie Robinson, and Westport actors Bette Davis and Paul Newman (an avid YMCA badminton player), the story continues:

When hot-rodding became popular, the Y rolled right along. As Matt recalls, “Bill Etch, who was a volunteer leader, had an interest in cars and with some friends formed a club called the ‘Downshifters,’ which met every Friday at the Y.”

“When the club became too big for the Y rooms, they began to meet at Camp Mahackeno, where they set up shop in the unheated pavilion. There were 30 or so young men in the club, including a young Michael Douglas, and they’d take apart cars, put ‘em back together and then participate in regional events with their cars.”

Matt and his late wife Fran raised their 4 children in Weston, and were instrumental in helping develop the community’s recreation programs and establishing Weston’s enduring connection to our Y ,…

As far back as the 1950s, Y leaders realized the need for more space to hold its many popular programs and activities, and shortly after Matt took the helm of the Y in 1970, he helped spur the most ambitious expansion of the Y to date.

The most critical need at the time was, simply, “more water.” As you can see from photos of the time, Staples High School swimmers used the 4-lane, 20-yard long Brophy Pool (then 4- to 10-feet deep) as their home pool. Imagine the scraped chins, or worse!

The original Brophy pool — used by Staples High School for practices and home swim meets.

Matt helped coach the Staples team, including a young swimmer named Bob Knoebel. Another swimmer, Mike Krein, was instrumental in forming the Y’s Water Rat swim team, holding practices both in the Brophy Pool and, during summers in the ‘60s, at Longshore Club Park. At the time Longshore’s pool was saltwater, flushed regularly, but evidently not often enough. The Y’s swim team name derives from the trespassing rodents the kids would sometimes encounter during their early-morning swims.

The Y’a voard and volunteer leaders set a 5-year goal that included building a new facility with a larger pool….

The addition of the Stauffer Pool and Weeks Pavilion in 1977 (named for the retired geologist who was a major donor) was followed by the conversion in 1984 of the town’s central firehouse into the Y’s fitness center.

Matt Johnson (center) at a 2011 Westport Y function, flanked by (from left) then trustee chair Pete Wolgast and Jim Marpe, past Y trustee chair and now Westport First Selectman,

Longtime Y member Larry Aasen, who has known Matt since 1963, says, “For Matt, it wasn’t just about running the Y; it’s about serving the community. And whether his task was raising money for an expansion or doing the dishes after a potluck dinner, you could always count on him.”

Indeed, Matt Johnson has played a major role in building up our Y over the past 60 years. But more than that, he’s left his mark as a community builder – of Westport, Weston and of all the separate communities of swimmers, gymnasts and program participants that make our Y all that it is today.

(Click here to make contributions in Matt Johnson’s name, to the Westport Weston Family YMCA.)

The upper gym at the Westport YMCA was named for Matt Johnson in 1999.

13 responses to “Remembering Matt Johnson

  1. Michael Calise

    As clearly elucidated here, for many years Matt was the Y! A life well served, and certainly remembered, in the history of the Y and our Westport community. May he rest in Peace.

  2. Matt was the greatest, never once saw him have a bad day. Dozens of Y memories: Serving in the Leaders’ Club for 3 years. My dad Tom was on the board and served as a consulting architect on the Weeks Pavilion; he also designed the firehouse-to-fitness center conversion and insisted on keeping the firepole. My sister Anne painted the full-sized wall mural in the Brophy Pool depicting all levels of the Y swim program from minnow to shark. She and I both worked the control desk – I even started in the old building working alongside the one and only Charlie Moffat. We moved over to the new building when the health centers were built. Brent Musberger was forever in a hurry but always took time to smile. Bill Mitchell always asked for an extra towel (which he got of course.) The staff were like family: Danny Devito, Claire Sacramone, Bob Knoebel. Bonded with Frank McLaughlin, a professional DC/Marvel artist, who taught both cartooning AND judo. Can’t forget endless practice with the King and Queen of the squash courts, Kevin Cunningham and Wendy Crowther.

    • All under Matt’s caring, benevolent and watchful eye

      • Wendy Crowther

        Thanks for the shout-out, Dave. Those days working at the Y were the absolute best. Not only did the Y basically help me create my career, but the bonds that were formed with fellow staffers from those days still endure to this day.

        While Matt was at the Y’s helm, not only did I work there but I also pursued my master’s degree in Exercise Science. Unsolicited, Matt came to me one day to tell me that the Y was going to pay some of my tuition. It was such an incredible gesture and it also reinforced everything the Y was about – the enrichment of “Spirit, Mind, and Body” – not only for its members but also for its staff.

        I remain forever grateful to Matt for all of the above.

  3. Sad passing. Never met the guy, but always saw his name on the wall at the Y. Was he also on the local local Selective Service [Draft] Board?

  4. Wow that shot makes the old Y pool look smaller than some Westport private pools. What was it: 20′-50′? Also, I remember swimming there as a child and seeing some elderly fellow dive in wearing just his…er…”athletic supporter.” It was a definitely a trauma-inducing event!

  5. Growing up in Westport I spent more hours than I can count at the Y . I learned to swim there and I worked there and at camp. Matt Johnson was one of those very special people that had a big influence on my life. Rest in piece Matt.

  6. Ann Urciuoli Allard

    Rest In Peace Matt. You and Al Breslin took me under your wings my first job as your “secretary “. Your patience and guidance as I entered the grown up world stays with me to this day. I know your gentle influence supported many young lives in many ways I’m proud to say I was one. You will be missed by many but your legacy continues on

  7. Carl Addison Swanson

    Folks growing up here in the 50’s & 60’s realize the importance of the YMCA downtown for it offered kids’ facilities to have fun and also many events to keep them busy including dances on Friday nights. And supervising all this activity and semi-chaos was Matt Johnson who seemed to be everywhere. Never heard him say a harsh word but when he spoke, you listened. Oh that Brophy pool . . . eyes would water like hell with all that enclosed chlorine in our eyes. Thank you Mr. Johnson for all your devoted and caring supervision and RIP.

  8. Matt was my first swim coach and an exceptional mentor. He exuded a calm power and patience with all of us kids at the time. I swam many a race in that 40-yard pool, alongside all three of the Brophys between 1955-59.

  9. I have many fond memories of Matt Johnson. I worked and volunteered at the YMCA throughout the 70’s. Getting my first job from Hal Holbrook (?) who ran the rec areas and Mahakeno, then from Hal and Danny DeVito. Hal was always pleasant to be around and helpful with anything I might have needed. The Y played an important role in my life and Matt was the leader of that organization.

  10. Nancy Powers Conklin

    My father and Matt were great buddies. They golfed together at Longshore every week and were a pair of “old friends.” In the mid-80s my husband and our family rented Matt and Fran’s home in Dennis Port on Cape Cod for 5 weeks! Matt and Fran were so gracious to us and treated us like part of their family. It is good to know that my Dad and Matt can play golf together again. Matt was one of a kind and made Westport that much better for everyone!