‘A beautiful struggle’

First Posted: 4/16/2015

OTTAWA — Whenever Tom Giesken, the first executive director of the Putnam County YMCA, is discouraged, he knows exactly where to go.

“When I have bad days, I’ll get on my motorcycle and drive down when the Y is closed and I’ll just sit there in the parking lot and look at it,” he said. “To see that and the part that I and many others had in it, I’m just amazed.”

Giesken, along with Mark Diemer, were two of the pioneers who, 20 years ago, spearheaded the effort to bring a YMCA to Putnam County.

“A group of us guys would get together at break time and one day, the conversation turned to, ‘There’s nothing for kids to do here in Putnam County,’” Giesken said. “I told them that the Y is a great organization.”

Many inspirations are short lived, and Giesken thought this would be one of them. However, Diemer got in contact with the YMCA and eventually, the proverbial ball got rolling throughout the county.

“We used the Brookhill Center quite a bit for basketball, we used the Vaughnsville Community Center and the Ottawa-Glandorf school gym,” he said. “When we held the aerobics class in Kalida, we held it in the basement of St. Michael’s.”

Eventually, the need for a permanent facility was apparent. Despite losing a $1 million pledge from Phillips when the Ottawa plant shut down, the YMCA opened in 2005 with a pool and exercise equipment. The facility can now celebrate a decade in the community, complete with a subsequently added gym.

“It’s now at the point where we now say, ‘What did we do before the Y was here?’” executive director Lori Fetherolf said. “We’ve made such a huge impact that I don’t think people remember much anymore what it was like before we were here.”

While county residents enjoy the facilities at the Y, the reach of the Y goes beyond its walls.

“Sometimes we have to take our services to them as opposed to them coming here,” Fetherolf said. “So our program director has gone out to some of the schools and taught archery and pickleball.”

The Y also served as the catalyst for the development of Putnam Parkway.

“The mayor told me, ‘You look down Putnam Parkway and see a hospital, a school, a library, a county educational office, a retirement home, and the Y was the cornerstone of all of that,’” Giesken said.

While the Y now boasts over 3,000 members and is on good footing, there is still a debt from the building that needs to be paid. Giesken hopes to see the debt paid within the next four years.

“You can do so much more when you don’t have debt hanging over your head,” Fetherolf said.

Overcoming that debt is just one more challenge to add to the many hurdles that the facility has been able to overcome since that lunchtime conversation 20 years ago.

“It’s a beautiful struggle,” Giesken said. “I wouldn’t do anything differently.”

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