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Doc Doubleday, the Westport Y’s First Physical Director

 

Note: Opened in 1923, the Westport Weston Family Y celebrated its 90th Birthday with a festive block party in September 2013. The Y’s 90th Anniversary celebrations will continue through the coming year and will feature a series of articles that pay tribute to the individuals and families who have been central to our Y’s mission of charitable service to our members and community over the decades.

This “90 Years of Y Families” series began with Mr. & Mrs. Edward T. Bedford, whose gift of the Y to our community has been followed by the generous support of their descendants, which now extends to five generations.

In honor of that family legacy, our new Y facility, now under construction at our Mahackeno campus, will be known as the Bedford Family Center. A listing of articles about the Bedford family and their connection to the Y may be found at the end of this article.

We continue our story of Y families with a fascinating remembrance of one of the central figures in the Y’s first decades, F. Edgar “Doc” Doubleday, by his son, Edgar N. Doubleday II.

Westporters have often heard the Doubleday name, as the town’s complex of athletic fields on Riverside Ave. is named in honor of the man who served the Y from 1923 to 1957, first as Physical Director and later as Membership Director. Generations of kids, old timers now, knew Doc as the friendly face behind the front desk. But few today know Doc’s story, and none can tell it like his son …

 

A 1932 photo of Y Officers; Doc Doubleday is standing, far right.

A 1932 photo of Y Officers; Doc Doubleday is standing, far right.

Remembering Doc Doubleday

Dad always told me that there is good in everyone, but sometimes you had to look to find it. That was his philosophy.

F. Edgar Doubleday was born in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1885. He grew up in a house right behind the race-horse track. He left school in 6th grade, began exercising horses and was riding as a jockey when he was 14 years old. Even as an adult, he only weighed 115 lbs., and at 5 ft. 8 inches was very wiry and all muscle.

Around 1901 the family of six children moved to Washington, P.A., just outside of Pittsburgh. Dad had various jobs working in the coal industry and also as a Western Union delivery person on a bicycle.

He joined the local YMCA and became an accomplished gymnast, basketball player and track-and-field star – he was a sprinter and pole vaulter. He mastered Indian club exercises at the Y and became a physical education class leader.

In 1917 Dad was hired by the Newton, Mass., YMCA as the Physical Director. He also served in a YMCA overnight camp called “Camp Frank A. Day” located in Brookfield, Mass. While there he developed into the First Aid attendant for all the kids. He treated the campers for cuts and bruises, etc., and thus came by the nickname, “Doc.”

About our last name: Yes, we’re distantly related to Abner Doubleday, the “inventor” of baseball. Dad played baseball as a boy and coached teams in Newton – turning out a great ballplayer in Bill Hunnefield, who went on to play in the major leagues for six seasons.

I guess a knack for baseball is in our blood: When I was 14 years old, I wanted to be a pitcher. Dad said to me, “Come on, Eddie, I’ll show you something.” He was 59 years old then. We went out into our driveway at 31 Lincoln Street and he threw a ball to me that didn’t rotate at all. It fluttered, dipped and dove under my glove and hit my shin. What was that, I asked? He said, “Eddie, that’s a knuckleball.” He showed me how to throw it and when I began pitching at Staples High School, it worked. Only problem, the catchers didn’t like it!

Anyway, in 1923 Dad was called to the new YMCA in Westport and began as the Physical Director. I believe someone from Newton moved to Westport, got involved in the YMCA and asked him to come down. The name Anson T. Leary rings a bell; Dad called him “Pop” Leary and he was a friend to the family for many years – “Pop” even helped get me started on my own YMCA career.

A color-tinted postcard of downtown Westport, circa 1930.

A color-tinted postcard of downtown Westport, circa 1930.

The YMCA had just been built and was a sturdy Tudor style facility, a gem in its day. I remember the windows would crank open and were made of metal with lead caulking. Dad would be upset when a pool ball or cue would break a pane. He would be called on to fix the window with melted lead – a job he really didn’t like.

In 1926, Dad was a volunteer track coach for the Pequot Athletic Club. One of his best athletes was Loren Sniffen of the Fillow Flower Co. family on Clinton Avenue. Loren went to UMass and was a star there in the 100 and 220 yard dashes, along with the broad jump. He held college and New England records in all three events; some say he was the best athlete Westport ever produced. His son, Jim, and I went through school together and married sisters. We’re both 83 years old now and keep in touch as often as possible.

That was the year, or so I’ve been told, that “Doc” spied a pretty lady on the parallel bars in one his gymnastics classes. It wasn’t long before they became engaged and then married in 1928. In 1930 I was born, Edgar N. Doubleday II, named after my Dad’s father.

The Depression Hits Hard

Times were tough for a lot of Westporters. In 1932, Mom and Dad lost their house on Clinton Avenue and we moved from one apartment to another. In 1935 we moved to a small rental house on Maplewood Avenue.

In 1937 I remember Dad coming home and telling my Mom that things were really tough financially at the Y and he would have to take a 50 percent pay cut. That was tough!

The Bedford Estate and its famed gardens.

The Bedford Estate and its famed gardens.

During the tough times at the Y my Mom and Dad would always be so thankful around Christmas time because the YMCA Board of Directors would all chip in, along with the Trustees, and buy every person on the staff a nice, big turkey for Christmas. It was well-appreciated by everyone within the YMCA family.

Another bright spot in those years was on Sunday afternoons, when the Bedford family would open up their beautiful gardens at their home on the shore road to Southport. I always looked forward to our Sunday afternoon trips out to “Bedford Gardens” and developed a love of flowers and nature’s wonders.

As a young boy I would envy all the kids a little older than me because at seven years old you could join the Y. In 1937, I finally made it! We used to line up in my Dad’s office in the fall to get our free physical exam from a couple of local doctors. They would look in our ears, nose and throat, listen to our heart beats, have us cough and then measure our weight. Once in a great while they would suspect something was not right and notify our parents and follow it up. Dad said they were volunteers and were not paid. That was the first time I heard the word, “volunteer.”

One summer in the ’30s, Dad was holding his YMCA Circus on the Westport Athletic Field (now the Doubleday Field). There was a white hairy ape in a cage jumping up and down, growling at everyone. I was really scared. It turned out that the ape was Ernie Jacobson, a high school kid in a costume. As fate would have it, Ernie grew up to become the Y’s Physical Director, replacing Al Bresslin, who in 1945 was named the Director of the YMCA.

The Great Hurricane of 1938

In 1938, Dad became the Membership Director, handling the front desk and public relations for the Y. He was extremely happy to meet, greet and listen to people, especially the young teenagers who looked to him for advice and guidance. (As a boy, Dad contracted measles and thus became completely deaf in his left ear. He told me he had to concentrate to “listen.”)

Cars negotiate the newly opened Merritt Parkway in the aftermath of the 1938 Hurricane.

Cars negotiate the newly opened Merritt Parkway in the aftermath of the 1938 Hurricane.

That was also the year of the great New England hurricane of 1938. My Dad and I tried to get down to the Y because we heard the downtown area was under water. We never made it. Willow Brook, which runs past Willow Brook Cemetery, was a huge river flowing across North Main Street.

The next day we got to the Y and the Saugatuck River had flooded the whole town, including the boilers in the Y, the Youth Division, and pool. The ping pong tables were floating around and the bowling lanes were under salt water. On Main Street boxes of produce were floating around along with other trash. It was a very depressing sight to say the least.

Dad put up a plaque at the bottom of the stairs that go down from the lobby. It had a line on it that was the high water mark of about six feet high from the floor of the basement.

On Dad’s 55th birthday in 1940 I was 10 years old. He said, “Come on Eddie, we’re going down to the Y. Some of the younger guys don’t believe me that I can do one-armed pushups. “There were four or five young men there and he proceeded to do five one-arm push-ups with his right arm. Then he quickly rose and got down and did five with his left. The fellows were amazed and so the legend of one-arm push-ups began.

Another time we went up to Nash’s Pond to ice skate. He came along, too, with an old pair of figure skates. Bill Krause, a friend of mine and an avid Ranger fan and also a good skater, was with us. Dad put on his skates and all of a sudden soared onto the ice. He zipped around on one leg, did some fancy spin moves and finished in a flurry of figure eights. Bill Krause and I were flabbergasted!

At one time Dad had a mild heart attack and told me it was nothing, he simply had an enlarged heart from athletics. He certainly had a big heart and a kind heart and everyone said that.

That big heart was to be sorely tested with what happened next.

Heavy Hearts on the Home Front

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, at about 2:30 pm, my Dad and I were listening to a football game on the radio when the game was interrupted with an announcement: “Pearl Harbor in Hawaii is under attack by the Japanese!”

Our world was changed forever.

Dad became very serious. He said, “There will be millions of lives lost because now Germany will jump in, too.” He was right.

Doc, with banjo, jams with a group of young musicians at the Y during the 1940s.

Doc, with banjo, jams with a group of young musicians at the Y during the 1940s.

The war was a very depressing time for all. The little town of Westport lost some 40 young, vibrant boys and men.

When my Dad stayed late to close the Y and it was quiet, he would be at the desk pecking away at the typewriter with one finger of each hand. I always wondered what he was doing and why he was typing every night.

I finally asked him about it and he said he was writing notes to all the young men he knew who were in the service all over the world. He had a 3×5 card file with the name, address of each serviceman, their likes and dislikes, friend’s names, hobbies and other things of their interest. His reasoning was that that they needed to know that we at home cared about them.

Every so often he would come home with a tear in his eye and a heavy heart, knowing another Westport boy had been killed.

Coming soon: Part II of the Doc Doubleday story, including the war years and the boom time that followed for Westport.

Follow-up links:

Sept. 5, 1923: The Day Westport Got Its ‘Y’” (Sept. 5, 2013)

The Bedford Family and the Family Y” (Sept. 12)

Honoring 90 Years of Y Families” (Oct. 1)

Another Important Y Birthday” (Oct. 11)