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Matt Johnson: A Builder of the Y, and the Communities We Serve

Matt Johnson (standing) at the Y's Annual Dinner in 1971. Seated are Y President George Dammon, Doug Edwards of CBS News and John Kemish, First Selectman.

Matt Johnson (standing) at the Y’s Annual Dinner in 1971. Seated are Y President George Dammon, Doug Edwards of CBS News and John Kemish, First Selectman.

Over the past 90 years, the Westport Weston Family Y has served our community in ever-evolving ways. When the Bedford Building first opened in 1923, the “Westport YMCA” featured two grand Men’s Social Rooms on the first floor and a separate entrance on Main Street that led to a small Ladies’ Social Room tucked upstairs.

Today, women make up more than half of Y members, and two of our past three Board Presidents have been women.

Can you imagine a Y without a place to swim? Our indoor pool, now known as the Brophy Pool, was added in 1929, and long served not only as our town’s only venue for indoor swimming, lessons and lifeguarding classes, but also as the setting for generations of Staples High School and YMCA meets.

Through the Depression, World War and into the Baby Boom era that followed, our Y was the town’s paramount destination for local youth. There was no Little League or town-run after-school or summer camp program. Bike racks in front of the Y were filled daily with the kids who came to spend their afternoons and summers at the Y and Camp Mahackeno, taking part in all manner of sports and special-interest clubs, from ham radio to hot rods.

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 two 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.

Our Family Y has long been blessed with leaders whose talent has been matched by tenure – William Stone (1923-1980), Doc Doubleday (1923-1957), Al Bresslin (1944-1970), along with more recent long-standing volunteers and staffers like Allen Raymond, Gil Vogel, Mike Laux, Bob Knoebel, Ruth Sherman, Patty Kondub, Sally Silverstein, Ellen Johnston and many others.

A diving exhibition in the Stauffer Pool in 1985.

A diving exhibition in the Stauffer Pool in 1985.

But 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 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, since converted to our illustrious Gymnastic Center.

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 two-level Fitness Center that to this day boasts the original brass pole used by generations of local firefighters.

Our downtown Y today is in many ways a creation brought forth through Matt’s visionary leadership.

Setting the Stage
Many memories were made along the way.  One of Matt’s most lasting Y recollections is from 1958. As he recalls, “In those days, the Y’s Annual Meeting was a very big deal, and every year the Meeting was held in the Y’s upstairs auditorium, which did double duty as a gym and theater. It was the staff’s job to get it ready, from putting flowers in the windowsills to engaging a prominent after-dinner speaker.”

“Someone knew Jackie Robinson, the groundbreaking Brooklyn Dodger star, and he agreed to deliver our keynote address,” says Matt. “The only catch was that his agent insisted on us giving Jackie a $100 speaker’s fee and to give him a check that evening.”

Naturally, a big crowd attended, and as Matt recalls, “Jackie aimed his talk at youth and Y relationships and spoke about breaking the color barrier in baseball. I was lucky enough to meet him and talk to him. He signed our program – and when Al Bresslin gave him the $100 check, Jackie handed it right back.”

The Y's Upper Gym was renamed in Matt's honor in 1999.

The Y’s Upper Gym was renamed in Matt’s honor in 1999.

Though the auditorium’s seats had been removed and a gym floor laid down, the theater stage remained. “Actors were very visible at the Y,” Johnson says. “Performers would come over from the Playhouse to use our stage for rehearsals. The famous musician, Skitch Henderson, was at our Y. At the time, he was married to Faye Emerson, a film actress who was famous in her own right as ‘the First Lady of Television.’ It’s a small thing, but I still remember getting her a chair so she could sit outside the Y to wait for Skitch to finish rehearsing.”

Betty Davis also made appearances at the Y. “Miss Davis lived in town on Newtown Turnpike and was very involved with the organization that became the first United Way,” says Matt. “The United Way originally sponsored Y youth and several other youth groups and was headquartered here for many years.”

Longtime Westporters fondly recall Paul Newman’s love of the Y, and often it was the Y’s badminton courts that brought him here.

“Badminton was a very popular sport,” says Matt. “The Y hosted two major badminton tournaments every year, and they were amazing to see. Unfortunately, not many people could, as there was no room for spectators…”

Downshifters02When 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.”

Making the Weston Connection
Matt and his late wife Fran raised their four children in Weston, and was instrumental in helping develop the community’s recreation programs and establishing Weston’s enduring connection to our Y. Their eldest daughter Joyce was in the last class to go to Staples High from Weston Junior High School before Weston High School was built.

“In the 60’s we started to discuss programs with Weston about the town and the Y combining youth activities,” Matt recalls. “Staff from the Y would run spring and summer outdoor programs in Weston, and a barn belonging to the former First Selectman was donated where we held youth programs, including dances on Friday nights. Weston needed activities for young people; the programs grew, and that was the beginning of the Town of Weston’s Recreation Department.”

“Weston was growing, and it was time for the town to take over responsibility and municipal leadership,” says Matt. “Recreation in Weston is huge today, with new sports complexes and such – but the Y connection was made, and will only get stronger when our new Y opens.”

As a longtime Westonite, Matt says he couldn’t be more pleased with the location of the Y’s modern new facility at its 32-acre Mahackeno campus at Route 33 and the Merritt Parkway. “It’s a good location, right in middle of both towns,” says Matt. “I’ve seen a lot of Y’s, but nothing like what we’re building at Mahackeno, especially with two wonderful new pools!”

‘More Water’
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.

A Staples High School swim meet in the Y's Brophy Pool.

A Staples High School swim meet in the Y’s Brophy Pool.

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 four-lane, 20-yard long Brophy Pool (then 4- to 10-feet deep) as their home pool. Imagine the scraped chins, or worse!

Matt, along with volunteers Ed Gillam and Jim MacPherson, coached the Staples team, including a young swimmer named Bob Knoebel. Another swimmer, Mike Krien, 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’s Board president at the time was Fred Robinson, and our volunteer leaders set a 5-year goal that included building a new facility with a larger pool that all hoped would satisfy the community for the next 50 years. Les Giegerich, a board member and Y trustee who was in the building business, was one of several who led the charge to enlarge the Y. Bruce Knowles was tapped as the Board’s Treasurer and became instrumental in introducing more modern accounting methods.

The community rallied around the project. Ruth Bedford, a granddaughter of Y founder Edward T. Bedford, continued her family’s tradition of support. So, too, did Y Trustee Howard Gault, father to Bill and grandfather to Sam, all of whom have served as Y volunteer leaders, as well as Gertrude Lamb, the Y’s first woman President.

Matt Johnson poses in front of a portrait of him in the newly opened Stauffer Pool.

Matt Johnson poses in front of a portrait of him in the newly opened Stauffer Pool.

“Our Y would not be what it is today without the support and leadership of the Bedfords and Gaults,” says Matt. “And Ruth Bedford was also very generous. We used to have coffee together at the diner across the street from the old Gault building – it was a gathering spot for locals, particularly fireman and police officers, and Ruth liked to sit and observe everyone’s comings and goings.”

The Brophy family was also instrumental in the Y growth during the 1970s. The three Brophy sons, Dan, Joe and Jimmy, were on the swim team. Says Matt: “Their mother was one of the first female doctors at a New York hospital, and their father was Dean at CCNY. The boys were close in age, and since both parents were working and absent a lot, Fran and I opened our home to them. I think their mother was appreciative, and the family was very supportive of the Y.”

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.

Built at the same time and in the same Tudor style as the original Y, the Firehouse had been rendered obsolete by larger trucks. Tucked as it was between the Bedford building and new addition, the old Firehouse made a fine new setting for the latest exercise and cardio equipment coming into vogue.

‘Time to Come Back Home’
Well into his fourth decade working at the Y, Matt Johnson wasn’t done with his continual efforts to enable the Y’s downtown facility to meet the community’s evolving needs.

For one of his last major initiatives as executive director at the Y, Matt knew just who to turn to.

Matt Johnson with Sally Silverstein at a recent Ambassadors Club luncheon at the Y.

Matt Johnson with Sally Silverstein at a recent Ambassadors Club luncheon at the Y.

Sally Silverstein had known Matt since she was a child growing up at the Y. One of her fondest memories of him, and the Y, is from the fifth grade. “Each year the Y ran an Annual Campaign Contest,” says Sally, “and all youth members took part in a candy-selling competition. The prize for first place was a bicycle, and I will never forget when Matt presented me with a beautiful pink bike with a white basket!”

Sally had worked in Aquatics and at Camp Mahackeno as a young adult, and was working at another Y and also in the Norwalk School System when her old Y mentor reached out once again.

“Matt contacted me to ask if I would come start a gymnastic program at the Family Y,” says Sally. “He told me it was time to come back home…”

And home it became, for both Sally and the Y Gymnastics program she developed some 25 years ago, which has since grown into an internationally acclaimed program. The Y’s Showtime Exhibition team performs around the world and, with our Competition Gymnastic team, have brought home a rack of trophies that spans the length of the upstairs Gymnastic Center.

Adds longtime Y member Larry Aasen, who has known Matt since 1963: “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.

Follow-up links about our Y’s history and its volunteer leaders over the years:

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)

Doc Doubleday, the Westport Y’s First Physical Director” (Oct. 22)

The Y’s Doc Doubleday: The War Years in Westport” (Nov. 8)

New First Selectman Marpe Steps Away from Y Trustee Board” (Nov. 20)

Pete Wolgast Receives AARP Senior Star of the Year Award” (Dec. 12)

Family Y to Rename Road to Mahackeno “Allen Raymond Lane” (Jan. 23, 2012)

Y Trustee Chair Pete Wolgast, with Matt Johnson and Jim Marpe, past Y Trustee Chair and current Westport First Selectman, at the 2011 Y Ambassadors Club luncheon.

Y Trustee Chair Pete Wolgast, with Matt Johnson and Jim Marpe, past Y Trustee Chair and current Westport First Selectman, at the 2011 Y Ambassadors Club luncheon.