- Associated Press - Saturday, February 20, 2016

GREENWICH, Conn. (AP) - An old box of photos, yellowed and fraying, had been neglected for decades in the Greenwich YMCA.

But pulled out of storage and cleaned up with the latest in photo restoration techniques, the old pictures have been given a new lease on life.

Now lining the walls of the renovated and expanded YMCA, the pictures, bursting with energy, tell the story of the town at work and play, as well as the institution that supported its growth, as the Y celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

There are photos of youngsters tinkering with radios in the ‘20s or ‘30s, and tennis players in long-legged pants on the courts before shorts became standard attire. In later years, men with shaggy hair and long sideburns shoot hoops, and a fitness instructor works with kids with a cigarette dangling from his lips.

Bob DeAngelo, the chief executive officer of the Y, said the old photos affirm the mission of the organization.

“It demonstrates not just the legacy of the Y, but the entire community,” said DeAngelo. “I love the spirit, too: kids, staff and volunteers, serving people, it’s timeless. Great moments for kids and families, that’s what it has always been and what it will be.”

The Greenwich Y was completed in 1916, in tribute to Nathaniel Witherell, a New York shipping magnate, by his widow, Rebecca. The organization is now non-denominational, though it still promotes the theme of its original mission as the Young Men’s Christian Association: the advancement of “body, mind, and spirit.”

Besides its role of providing recreation and instruction to the young and old in Greenwich, as well as the developmentally disabled, the Greenwich Y is historically notable as the place where racquetball was invented.

Joe Sobek, who died in 1998 at the age of 79, was a tennis pro and squash instructor at the Greenwich Country Club. He wanted a fast-paced and less technically demanding game to play with friends and created the new sport at the Y in the 1950s.

“In about 15 minutes of practice, anyone can attain instant mediocrity,” he once joked in a magazine interview about his creation.

There have also been some rough patches in the YMCA’s past. Acrimony arose among the leadership when a proposal was developed in the late 1970s to sell the site at the Post Road and Mason Street and relocate to Old Church Road. The plan was shot down after contentious in-fighting.

Financial hardships twice nearly closed the doors on the operation. In 1992, membership had declined substantially, and the management sent out a letter to members: “Time is dangerously short .” The 54 low-cost housing units for men were closed starting in the late ‘90s, as the YMCA decided to get out of housing and focus on programming.

The organization stabilized, but major troubles mounted in 2005, when the institution borrowed $20.2 million for a new pool and expansion. The YMCA fell behind on its loan payments, leading to a halt on construction and a surge of creditors coming forward.

In 2014, the organization sorted out its problems with a debt restructuring and a bank bailout, achieving financial stability. The major renovations were completed in late 2013, leading to a jump in membership of about 500 people. The modern facility draws some 5,500 members for a wide variety of programming.

Revenue grew by more than 10 percent under the last CEO, Edward Philipp, who led the Y from 2012 through last summer. And the agency has made increasing financial aid a top priority in recent years, giving out $418,000 in 2014, about double what the nonprofit distributed in 2013 and four times as much as in 2012.

The aid goes to the Y’s child care operations, memberships, summer and vacation camps, and aquatics and youth programs.

The Y has also become one of the town agencies flexible enough to help meet local needs that arise. In response to drownings in town that occurred in 2008 and 2011, the Y last year formed a new initiative: the No Swimmer Left Behind program, which allows residents who can’t afford swim classes to take them for free.

Tanja Ellis, a new board member at the Y, recalls being a little discouraged when she brought home the box of old photos which she had volunteered to clean up for display.

“Once I brought it home, I said: I need some help,” she recalled. The pictures were cracking and faded and heavily weathered.

Fortunately for her and the Y, Ellis’ daughter, Elisabeth Hall, a sophomore at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, has a love of photography, a keen eye and computer skills. It was a daunting but workable project, with dozens of hours of labor.

“Some of the photographs were falling apart,” Hall recalled. “The point was to preserve them, to bring them back, and to show the genuine photographs.”

Hall digitized the images on a scanner and used software to make corrections to sections that were faded or torn. She cropped some of the images, but she didn’t do anything to alter their essential character. The family then paid a professional company to print them for display.

The results went up last week, and they’ve been well-received.

“A lot of people are recognizing themselves, or realize that this is their cousin,” said Ellis. “This, to me, is precious stuff.”

Hall said it was rewarding to see the pictures on the walls, looking as fresh as the day they were developed. “It’s definitely worth it,” she said.

The photos will remain up through the year, and written comments will be encouraged.

“We want the community to come in to see themselves,” DeAngelo said.


Information from: Greenwich Time, https://www.greenwichtime.com

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