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Bill Geiger had every reason to believe his last few weeks at the McGaw Y would be among the best: The organization is in good financial shape; membership is up and widespread throughout the community; several solid community programs were begun or are overseen by the McGaw Y. In the nine years he has held the position of executive director/CEO of the McGaw Y, the organization has become so interwoven with the fabric of the community itself – and Mr. Geiger with the McGaw Y – that it is the rare event here that does not have Mr. Geiger on the guest list.
The troubling events of late September – when a promising Evanston teen was murdered, allegedly by an Evanston man of 20 – have shaken the community so much that Mr. Geiger, rather than preparing to leave and accept the kudos of a grateful community, has focused on the work that seems to come naturally to him: trying to foster understanding and empathy among the diverse parts of the community. With Seth Green, executive director of Youth Organizations Umbrella (Y.O.U.), he organized an evening of “listening and empathy” for the community to hear how the shooting death of 14-year-old Dajae Coleman affected several people who knew the teen in different aspects of his life.
As he prepares to step down from the Y, though, Mr. Geiger is not stepping away from the community. He spoke recently with the RoundTable about his years at the McGaw Y. Although he returned to Evanston to become CEO, he grew up here, and he met his wife, Beth, at Camp Echo, the Y’s summer camp for teens.
“It’s been a great nine years,” Mr. Geiger told the RoundTable. “I’ve had great support from the board and the community.” Hours of conversation, networking and thought underlie that statement. “The YMCA is so broad – camp Echo, resident members, child care, Project SOAR – that the challenge is to keep the weight of the community from pushing you inward [rather than back out in to the community].”
Mr. Geiger’s forte – and his job – were building that sense of community, following a vision “that the YMCA can strengthen the community.” If his legacy will be the sense of community within the McGaw Y and the importance of the McGaw Y to the community, Mr. Geiger credits his predecessor, timing and a community open to the possibilities of the McGaw Y.
Many in the community, however, point to Mr. Geiger himself as the leavening that has made the McGaw Y’s reputation rise.
“Bill has been a tremendous community partner,” said Karen Singer, CEO of the YWCA Evanston/North Shore.”
“Bill grew up in Evanston. He understands Evanston and where we’re going and how the Y can help move Evanston forward,” said local businessman Robert Reece, former chair of the McGaw Y board of trustees.
With the 125th anniversary celebration in 2010, Mr. Reece said, the McGaw Y took a major step into the community, said Mr. Reece. The McGaw Y shared the spotlight that year with the Emerson Street YMCA, which had been established in 1914 since the YMCA at that time would not allow blacks. The McGaw YMCA was integrated, the Emerson Street Y was closed in 1969. Local filmmaker Susan Hope Engel made a documentary, “Unforgettable,” about the Emerson Street Y. The film won several awards.
“Many African Americans, old and young, had the opportunity to tell about the Emerson Street Y and what it meant to them. It was an awesome story that was told,” said Mr. Reece. “Bill supported these efforts.”
Mr. Geiger said the 125th anniversary “gave us the opportunity to see how we could become more engaged in the community and we did. It caused us to reexamine our mission: youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.”
Partnering to Strengthen the Community
Partnerships with other local organizations helped expand the Y’s horizon. Ms. Singer said she and Mr. Geiger worked “very closely on a number of initiatives … talking about kinds of multi-pronged initiatives to move the community forward.”
Pioneering Healthier Communities, or PHC-Evanston, is a communitywide effort to address the causes of and problems caused by childhood obesity. PHC is a nationwide YMCA effort, but in Evanston several local organizations, including the City of Evanston, are taking the initiative, he said. One partner is Second Baptist Church. “Reverend Mark Dennis shares the view that health and well-being are part of his mission to keep the community and kids healthy,” Mr. Geiger said. “Men from Second Baptist become mentors for Project SOAR. … We were able to increase significantly the number of kids served,” he added.
A partnership with School District 65 and Y.O.U. for children’s literacy this summer appears to have thrived as well.
“He made a huge impact in the growth of this community, mainly by making the YMCA a family place,” said Dick Peach, a long-time Evanston resident who has served as president of, among other things, the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, Keep Evanston Beautiful and the Rotary Club of Evanston. “When I was a teenager, it was mostly for kids. Bill tried to make it affordable, worked hard on scholarships.”
“Thanks to Bill’s outstanding leadership,” said Mr. Reece, “the McGaw Y is positioned well to serve our diverse community. Bill has reached out to all segments of the community, not only in programming but in staff and volunteers.”
Leaving the Job, Not the Community
“I want to make it clear,” Mr. Geiger told the RoundTable: “I am not being pushed out; I am not leaving for health reasons, and I don’t have another job in my hip pocket.” He is leaving, he said, so the Y can carry out its strategic plan without the interruption of finding a new CEO. “We’ve gone through a year of strategic planning and come up with the goals of youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.” As the discussions progressed, Mr. Geiger said, “It became clear that the horizon was probably four to seven to 10 years. My thinking was that that as the McGaw Y moves forward in its planning, I might be at a point where I would need to step down. … It would be more disruptive to leave in three to five years in the middle of something. … I said early on when I first came that I would leave at the right time for the McGaw Y and I felt this was the right time for the McGaw Y.”
Mr. Geiger tendered his resignation to the board of directors a few months ago, but has promised to remain to help orient his successor. To the delight of the McGaw Y community, he and his wife have chosen to remain in Evanston.
“There are certain people Evanston has been very blessed to have. They have enriched the community for so many, many years. Bill Geiger is one,” said Mr. Peach. “Bill is such a motivator for the community not just a facilitator. When he talks about something, you feel the passion – people want to be in the parade, even though sometimes he’s just telling you about something, not giving you a sales pitch. I’m pleased that he and Beth are sticking around.”
Said Ms. Singer, “Even though he’s not going far, I’m going to miss him.”
Because of his involvement in the community he loves, Mr. Geiger may not ever have the easy walk down the exit ramp, but it seems he would not want it any other way.