Mark Bennett: Couple charts century-plus history of Y's in Terre Haute

Tribune-Star/Mark BennettImages of Y: Southern Vigo County residents Pat and Dale Bringman hold photographs from the YWCA’s history in Terre Haute. On the left, Pat displays a picture of a Rankin School head-start class at the YMCA pool. At right, Dale has a photo of the former YWCA building on North Seventh Street. The Bringmans are writing a book about the Y’s local history.

It would be a miracle if Terre Haute’s history with the YMCA and YWCA contained no troubles or disruptions.

That would be impossible.

Instead, the most impressive element of the organizations’ legacy in this city is perseverance.

The Y’s have indeed seen troubles and disruptions. Yet, the facility remains a busy place, trying to fulfill its goals to nurture healthy living, social responsibility and youth development.

That’s happening 154 years after a group of Terre Haute evangelists gathered in a reading room on Wabash Avenue, gradually leading to the first local YMCA branch’s formation in 1892. A decade later, the city’s first YWCA opened.

Today, the Y continues as the Vigo County YMCA — with equal amounts of YWCA in its DNA — at the riverside facility south of Fairbanks Park.

Pat and Dale Bringman found many examples of tenacity that has sustained the Y’s presence in Terre Haute as the Prairie Creek couple researched the history in preparation for a book and a historical timeline to be displayed on the current YMCA’s walls.

“There were a lot of dedicated people, spending time, making sure everything worked,” Dale said Wednesday afternoon. “You have to be impressed with people who spent 10, 15 years or more of their lives doing that.”

The Bringmans are retired educators. Pat taught in the Vigo County schools. Dale taught in Indiana State University’s School of Technology. He’s 78 years old. She’s 80. They met as ISU students in the early 1960s. Pat even lived briefly at the YWCA as an ISU student, when her campus residence, Erickson Hall, was being renovated.

Given their teaching background, it’s not surprising they aim for their research to enlighten the public, both folks who use the YMCA and those who don’t.

“Our hope is that somehow it might affect the community’s awareness,” Pat said. “The community needs to recognize what they have, and what they could have, in a better way.”

Her involvement in a grassroots effort to reopen the YMCA pool, by a group of YMCA patrons known as “Y Make Waves,” indirectly led to the Bringmans’ historical quest. YMCA officials had closed the pool in September 2018 because of its operational costs. Y Make Waves succeeded in rallying resources and donations, and the pool reopened in January 2020.

During a routine trip by Pat to swim at the Y, Cindi Monds — the YMCA branch executive director for the past 1 1/2 years — mentioned her goal to place a timeline of the local histories of the YWCA and YMCA along an empty wall at the facility. When Pat expressed approval, Monds asked if she would create it. She agreed, and her husband later joined the effort.

Since then, the Bringmans have spent hours combing through materials in the Vigo County Public Library and Vigo County Historical Museum, and have interviewed nearly 20 people.

They decided to craft a book, which already consumes nearly 200 pages. Their study originally focused on the YWCA, considering the current YMCA occupies a building constructed for and used by the YWCA from 1976 until the YM and YW merged as the “Terre Haute Family Y” in the mid-2000s. Now, Pat is trying to add the YM’s full local history, and hopes to complete the book by year’s end.

It’s a big undertaking. Pat asks people with historical information, photos or news clippings to contact her by email at pbringman@frontier.com.

The Y’s certainly have made news through the years, from their many community events and outreach to needy kids and families, to difficulties. Not only have the Y’s been at the brink of disappearing from Terre Haute, they actually crossed into that abyss.

The YMCA almost died in the late 1930s, when its Ohio Street building got condemned. A fundraising campaign resulted in the construction of the YMCA at Sixth and Walnut streets, which served until 2006. The YWCA absorbed a devastating event in 1961, when an explosion killed a janitor whose warnings reportedly saved the lives of nearly 50 women living there.

Then, financial straits in the wake of the 2007-09 “Great Recession” led to a rugged closing of a short-lived iteration of the Y — the unaffiliated Riverbank Family and Fitness Center — in December 2010. Riverbank’s demise came four years after the old Sixth and Walnut YMCA had closed. The merged Terre Haute Family Y in the YWCA building followed, and then came the unaffiliated center, and then the closing.

“It was not a good time for the Y’s reputation,” Dale acknowledged.

The facility reopened in the city-owned riverside building as the Vigo County YMCA in May 2012 as an expansion of the Clay County YMCA. Now, the Vigo, Clay and Putnam Y’s are part of the YMCA of the Wabash Valley.

Vigo’s Y provided $378,000 in scholarships in 2019 for kids and families unable to pay membership fees. Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the Vigo County YMCA to close from March to June last year, the Y still provided $117,000 in scholarships for the needy, Monds said. Seven-hundred kids participate in before- and after-school programs. Another 800 participate in summer camps.

And, there are numerous fitness and community education programs and events for adults, including swimming activities in a revived pool used by 10,000 people yearly, Monds said. The YMCA partners with fellow nonprofits like the 14th and Chestnut Community Center, the Community Alliance and Services for Young Children, Camp Navigate, the local colleges and others.

A century-plus of such positives has been made possible by tenacity through the struggles. The upsides are many. The YWCA, for example, housed the city’s first indoor pool at its original North Seventh Street site. The YWCA also led local efforts to promote racial integration in 1948.

Monds is excited the Bringmans are capturing the history, “before it gets lost,” she said.

“It’s really important to know the YM and YW have been here for our community through World War I, World War II, the Depression, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the good things, too,” Monds said.

“The history is a good indication of our viability as a community,” Monds added, “and we’re reaching out to the community to make it better.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.