Andersen Library exhibition showcases YMCA history

Seth Woehrle

The invention of basketball, development of summer camps and support of U.S. military troops all have fallen under the scope of the YMCA at one point or another during the organization’s 150-year history.

An exhibit at the University’s Andersen Library showcases that history, displaying just a fraction of the artifacts and documents from the 3,000 feet of the Kautz Family YMCA Archives stored in the bluffs of the West Bank.

“We easily have close to 100,000 photographs and about 10,000 books and journals,” said Dagmar Getz, the YMCA’s reference archivist. “In terms of artifacts, we probably have two to three times what’s (on display).”

The exhibit traces the organization’s history, from its beginnings as the brainchild of a London shop clerk to its more recent support of soldiers in the Gulf War.

The display in Andersen Library is only a fraction of the entire collection. Several pieces, such as World War I YMCA uniforms and a Bible written in Dakota are too valuable to exhibit in the small gallery.

Researchers from around the world comb through records detailing smallpox vaccinations in China during the early 1900s, the YMCA’s assistance to U.S. prisoners of war in both world wars and the origins of basketball, invented by James Naismith in 1891.

They use the information for writing books, researching thesis papers and looking for material for ESPN and History Channel productions.

Starting from the Civil War, the YMCA worked alongside armies and other organizations such as the Red Cross, but its mission was different, Getz said.

While the American Red Cross was concerned with the immediate survival of POWs, the YMCA attempted to lessen spiritual and mental hardship, gaining access to the camps and providing things such as writing materials and sports equipment.

Athletics has always been integral to the organization’s philosophy, forming one side of their “Spirit, Mind and Body” motto and part of the drive toward “muscular Christianity” at the end of the 19th century.

In addition to basketball, the YMCA has had a hand in the birth of volleyball and softball. It was also a pioneer in creating community swimming pools and establishing summer camps for children.

Getz attributed the YMCA’s successful history to its varied programs and ability to change with the times.

“What has made YMCA so strong over the years is that it has always adapted to the needs of the communities,” Getz said.