Kids enjoying family gym at the McGaw YMCA. Credit: Les Jacobson

There are lots of claimants to the title “the happiest place on earth.” Of course, it has been said of Disneyland so often I’m surprised they haven’t copyrighted the phrase. Having never been there, I can’t say.

I have my own favorites. There is Portobello Road market on a crisp weekend morning. The main concourse of Grand Central Station with the light streaming through the vast overhead windows. Strawberry Fields in Central Park. Concert nights at the Pritzker Pavilion downtown. Any cross-country train leaving Chicago’s Union Station, heading northwest to Seattle or southeast to New Orleans. (Or anywhere else.)

Evanston resident Tim Blue with Marley, 3, and Maryk, 2, at the family gym session at the McGaw YMCA. Credit: Les Jacobson

But the local title, by my vote, goes to the weekend family gym sessions at the McGaw YMCA. There you will find hoopsters going long for their threes, taking the rebound on one bounce and executing a slick move or two for a nice layup. Nearby, watched by their moms and dads, are dozens of kids, hooting and hollering with joy, tooling around on little tyke bikes, scooting down the bouncy house, spinning their hula hoops, diving over the soft foam blocks and dodging each other and the errant basketballs and just generally having the time of their little lives.

Does it get any better than that? I don’t think so.

That’s the thing about the McGaw Y: It is generally, on weekend mornings, the happiest place around.

Which isn’t to say the place doesn’t have its problems. The building at 1000 Grove St. is 92 years old and, given its heavy utilization, not surprisingly prone to problems. Before the pandemic there wasn’t a week when one or the other facility – steam room or hot tub – wasn’t broken and awaiting repairs. Recently the sauna was closed.

The Men’s Residence is in the midst of raising money for a desperately needed and long-overdue renovation, which last June was awarded $3 million in American Recovery Plan Act funds. The Y has raised another $2 million and has $12 million to go.

Unfortunately, the McGaw Y also reflects Evanston’s sad history as “the most segregated place there was,” a story achingly and movingly told in the video Unforgettable – Memories of the Emerson Street Branch YMCA, about the shameful 55-year period (from 1914 to 1969) when there were two YMCAs, one exclusively for whites and the other for Blacks. (The Grove Street facility was first integrated in 1963, six years before the Emerson Street Branch was closed. The story is told in a Shorefront Journal article by Dino Robinson.)

Today the 220,000-square-foot facility on Grove Street is thoroughly integrated, incredibly busy and much beloved – especially on weekend mornings.

“They’re having an absolute blast,” observed Evanston resident Ben Van Laan on a recent Sunday, as he watched his three kids, ages 6, 4 and 2, race around.

Ashur (left) and Doug Nichols, from Evanston, at the weekend family gym session at the McGaw Y. Credit: Les Jacobson

You could read the happiness on their faces. Unbeatable.

There has been a YMCA in Evanston since 1885. The original building was at Davis Street and Chicago Avenue, but relocated to 1611 Orrington Ave. in 1898 before moving to its current location in 1930.

Currently there are around 8,200 members, a decrease of some 25% from pre-pandemic numbers.

“For a few months during the pandemic, membership was down as much as 55%,” said Becky Slenk, executive director, Membership and Programs. “However, many members supported us at reduced rates so we could continue to provide services to the community.”

Staff currently numbers some 250 people, which swells to around 350 in the summer when the Y’s summer day camp, summer learning programs and Camp Echo are in session. That makes the McGaw Y one of the dozen or so largest employers in the city.

“I love working here,” said Eric Franklin, who started at the Y in 2010 and is now community coordinator for the Men’s Residence. “It’s given me an opportunity to grow and meet fantastic people who are near and dear to my heart.” His “favorite part” of working at the Y? “Everyone is welcome here.”

The McGaw Y Children’s Center, located a block away at 1420 Maple Ave., serves more than 200 kids ranging from 6 weeks old to pre-kindergarten. There is also a satellite Head Start program in partnership with the Childcare Network of Evanston at Family Focus, 2010 Dewey Ave. The Y’s after-school program, School’s Out, operates at both sites and serves some 140 kindergarten through fifth graders. The MetaMedia program hosts scores of middle school youth at Family Focus and the Grove Street building.

Jason Milton (from left) with Mia, 2, and Lincoln, 4, at the family gym session at the McGaw Y. Credit: Les Jacobson

More than 150 men call the McGaw Y their home. Almost half have lived there more than 10 years, while a handful have been there three decades or more.

In addition to the residential units there are two large gyms, with courts for basketball, volleyball and pickleball; two swimming pools; a running track; a fitness center with cardio equipment and free weights; racquetball and squash courts; and numerous studios and multipurpose rooms. There is also MetaMedia, an innovative digital media and maker space for middle school youth; and the Kids Club, which provides up to two free hours of child care per day while McGaw Y parents use the facility.

Aside from being a happy place it is, to say the least, a busy place.

McGaw’s leader

President and Chief Executive Monique Parsons has been heading up the organization since 2018. Born and raised in Evanston, she graduated in 1994 from the University of Minnesota and worked at the state Department of Corrections and then in a Minneapolis public schools treatment program, where she said she developed “a deepening passion for young people, especially the ones society had given up on.”

Parsons moved back to Evanston in 1998 with her young son “to be nearer to family and in the community that raised me.” She worked as a club director at the McCormick Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago and then as a program director at local Ford Motor Co. plants. In 2004, while working at Ford, she met then-McGaw Y President Bill Geiger, who recruited her to join the Y’s executive ranks as vice president of programming. After a stint in 2010 at the YWCA Evanston/North Shore helping develop programs, including the racial justice program, she returned to McGaw as the Y’s first chief operating officer.

YWCA President Karen Singer, who was Parsons’ boss in 2010 during the latter’s tenure there, characterized her as “spectacular,” adding, “I turn to her often to get her perspectives on issues of youth and equity.”

“I have enormous respect for Monique as a leader, not only at the Y but in the community as well,” Geiger said. 

“The board is a big fan of hers,” agreed Janine Hill, McGaw Y board chair. As an African American woman, Hill added she was excited “we can show the community how two women of color can lead.”

In a long interview, Parsons noted that “our community’s greatest challenge is also our Y’s greatest opportunity. Because we are a diverse and segregated community, there are pockets within our community that live in distress. There are families and individuals who are under pressure caused by lack of money or basic life necessities.”

McGaw YMCA President Monique Parsons shows off one of the model rooms for the Men’s Residence. Credit: Les Jacobson

To meet their needs, she said the Y “fills in gaps in areas we thrive in: early childhood education, summer camp, after-school programming, affordable housing, health and wellness, first employer for young adults and being a place of belonging for all people at every stage of life.”

Parsons reflected on the large responsibility of her job. “The privilege of leading this YMCA drives me to be intentional and thoughtful about each and every decision I make. Our decisions affect lives. I get to witness how what we aim to do can positively change a person’s moment, day – or life. That’s an awesome responsibility to have. To know you can provide life-changing experiences to so many unique people, and you represent an organization that’s been doing it for over 135 years, that’s more than satisfaction, that’s pure joy.”

Today the biggest part of her job is fundraising. She said there is a development team on staff and she and the board are focused on the Men’s Residence capital campaign.

There are currently 156 residents, who will have to vacate for up to a year when the work gets underway. Parsons said the Y “will maintain staff and program support while working to ensure the men will be in quality short-term housing” during the renovation. She added she is hoping to keep everyone together in Evanston, for resident and staff convenience.

The pandemic slowed renovation progress, but also gave management time to “reimagine how the space could be used,” Parsons said. Plans call for a new private entrance for residents, additional program areas and shared communal spaces, as well as upgraded bathrooms, bike room storage and new lounges.

“It is a great joy and a huge responsibility to lead this institution that affects so many lives,” she said.

Who was McGaw?

In 1984 the McGaw Y was named after Foster G. McGaw, the founder and chief executive of American Hospital Supply Corp., in recognition of a gift from the McGaw Foundation of more than $1 million.

I worked at AHSC in the 1980s, when it was headquartered at what is now the Rotary Building at 1560 Sherman Ave. McGaw, who lived from 1897 to 1986, was remembered as a smart, no-nonsense and visionary business executive who essentially invented the hospital supply business. AHSC was then the largest hospital supply firm in the world.

An interesting historical sidebar is that the actor Bill Murray’s mother Lucille worked there for many years, in the mailroom. According to company lore, when her son became famous, people would stop her to say something like, “I really love your son. He’s great.” She would invariably reply, “All my kids are great.”

Portrait of Foster McGaw, for whom the McGaw YMCA is named, hanging in the Chinnock Lounge in the Y building.

(A related historical sidebar: Comedian/writer/producer Tina Fey worked at the McGaw Y at the front desk when she was living in Chicago in the early 1990s.)

McGaw was a noted philanthropist. His mother was Alice Millar, for whom the beautiful chapel on the south end of the Northwestern campus is named. His step-daughter, Jeanne Vail, was the namesake of Northwestern’s smaller Vail Chapel, according to Wikipedia.

A portrait of McGaw hangs in the YMCA’s Chinnock Lounge, near the front entrance.

In the painting he is seated at a table, holding a sheath of papers, looking out at the viewer with a distinguished bearing. But you can just make out the hint of a smile, Mona Lisa-like. Perhaps he is thinking about his name on the door of the happiest place on earth.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently four consecutive Northern...

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

The RoundTable will try to post comments within a few hours, but there may be a longer delay at times. Comments containing mean-spirited, libelous or ad hominem attacks will not be posted. Your full name and email is required. We do not post anonymous comments. Your e-mail will not be posted.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Well done Les. thankyou for taking us on a historical journey of the Y and mentioning Emerson St YMCA as well. I remember when the McGaw Y hosted Emerson St YMCA night complete with a dinner and airing of the Video you mentioned in the article.