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Walter F. Worrill, pioneering YMCA executive, dies at 98

Walter F. Worrill was YMCA executive

Walter F. Worrill was a YMCA executive

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Updated: May 24, 2013 6:37AM

They streamed out of their homes, offices and schools, lining the streets around the 37th Street YMCA to get close to their hero.

Slugger Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line in baseball, was making an early 1950s appearance at the Y at the request of Walter F. Worrill, a YMCA executive who had been Robinson’s friend since they were kids in Pasadena, Calif.

Adoring crowds of African Americans came out to cheer the man who braved racist abuse to become a trailblazer.

“It was thousands and thousands of black people on the streets of Wabash, from 39th to 36th Street, to see Jackie Robinson, and his [Brooklyn Dodgers] teammate, Junior Gilliam, step out of a limousine and go in and make a speech,” said Mr. Worrill’s son, Conrad.

Mr. Worrill’s work at the Y, at 3763 S. Wabash, placed him at the epicenter of black life in Chicago. A historic landmark in the Black Metropolis-Bronzeville Historic District, the Y was one of the city’s most important stops for African Americans during the Great Migration.

After the long journey north from their Southern hometowns, it was a refuge, refueling stop and launching pad. It was a place to rent a nice room, in a city where many neighborhoods were off-limits to African Americans. And it was where newcomers networked for the jobs that would give them their first toehold into the middle and upper class.

In addition to working out, patrons could learn to swim and drive and even study a foreign language. Mr. Worrill also organized Toastmasters-style meetings. “He helped young black men learn how to become public speakers,” his son said. “He was an administrator, an organizer and a social worker.”

Mr. Worrill, who rose to become executive director of the Middle Atlantic Region of the National Council of YMCAs — and a member of the YMCA Hall of Fame, based in Springfield, Mass. — died April 10 in Pasadena’s Huntington Hospital. He was a month shy of his 99th birthday.

His family came north after his father, Oscar Worrill Sr., attracted unwanted attention for producing some of the smoothest Prohibition moonshine in Covington, Ga., Conrad Worrill said. Oscar Worrill had to worry about more than revenue agents. He had to flee the outrage of competing white moonshiners who didn’t take to a black man producing a better product. The family joined relatives in Pasadena.

Mr. Worrill attended Muir High School, where he was on the 1935 track team with Jackie Robinson’s brother, Mack. He raised money to help send Mack Robinson to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he snared a silver medal, behind gold-medalist Jesse Owens.

After high school, he started a landscaping business that manicured the lawns and gardens of some of Pasadena’s wealthiest residents.

Mr. Worrill joined a YMCA leadership club, and a benefactor paid for him to enter a Y training program at Whittier College, where he was the only African-American student, his son said. For three years, he went to school during the day and did landscaping at night.

He fell in love with Anna Belle Gravenberg, a member of his church choir. Later, she sang at the wedding of Jackie and Rachel Robinson. The Worrills had two sons, Oscar and Conrad.

In 1939, Mr. Worrill worked with the NAACP to desegregate a Pasadena swimming pool. Hispanics, Asians and African Americans were allowed in the pool only once a week — on “International Day” — because the water was cleaned immediately afterward. The NAACP won a lawsuit to open it to non-whites, but rather than abide by the ruling, officials closed the pool for years.

Mr. Worrill started out managing YMCAs in California. In 1950, he was recruited to work at Chicago’s Wabash Avenue Y, then known as “the Colored Y,” his son said. Housing in Chicago was limited for African Americans, but the Worrills wound up renting an apartment in the 5600 block of South Maryland from an African-American waiter they met on the train that took them from the West Coast to Chicago, their son said.

He became executive director of the Washington Park Y at 5000 S. Indiana and continued up the ranks. By 1971, he was running the Middle Atlantic Region of the National Council of YMCAs. He was responsible for 243 facilities in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, his son said.

Though he retired in 1980, he continued as a consultant for the YMCA until 1988.

“He counseled me and mentored me in many different ways.” said Paul King, who founded the construction firm UBM Inc. Mr. Worrill used to tell King, “You have nothing to lose but your own insecurity.”

In 1977, Mr. Worrill and his first wife divorced. In 1978, he married his second wife, Sylvia Adele Henderson. Both died before him.

Mr. Worrill was warm and humble, his son said. “He would never eat any food without praying.”

He was also hyper-organized. He didn’t write his name on checks; he typed it, on his trusty Underwood. He liked to send cards to relatives, and always tucked in a little something extra for the kids who were in college. He liked driving Oldsmobiles and Impalas. He was a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

In addition to his sons, he is survived by 13 grandchildren; 21 great-grandchildren, and a great-great grandchild.

Services have been held.

“Everything I am, I owe to my daddy,” Conrad Worrill said.

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