Earl is all about family, family, family. So it was a perfect fit when he joined the YMCA, because it quickly became – well – his second family.
When Earl was in his mid-20s back in 1956, he was invited by a friend to attend a Y’s Men’s Service Club Meeting, which was located at the YMCA in Fargo. His friend encouraged him to bring some tennis shoes and socks along to the meeting so that they could stay after and shoot some baskets. Earl immediately fell in love with the YMCA – its facilities, its people, its camaraderie. He decided to become a member himself, so on September 1, 1956 he received his first membership card, shiny and new. At that time, his membership was $25 per year.
Earl always loved sports, especially ones that involved running – like tennis and basketball – so he enjoyed participating in those activities with friends at the YMCA. Soon after he joined, he was introduced to a sport he had never played before – racquetball. Earl described that, at that time, him and his friends played with homemade paddles without any holes or netting. They bought the pieces to put their homemade paddles together for $1.25, because the paddles in the sporting goods store were much too expensive – a whopping $4.95.
Earl became a big advocate for racquetball in the YMCA and in the community. In 1971 he was appointed to the National Paddleball Association Board of Directors and served for six years. He also helped raise money to build four additional courts in the downtown Fercho YMCA in 1970 just a few years after the building opened in 1962, when only two courts were built.
Earl’s involvement didn’t stop with racquetball. He was on a competitive volleyball team in the 1960s that played in tournaments in Minneapolis, Winnipeg and Sioux Falls. He also enjoyed swimming. He said that ‘back in the day’ it was required that men showered before doing laps in the pool, but when the YMCA launched its first aquatics class that was open to both genders, the women weren’t required to shower. He chuckled when he said that, at the time, the men got upset that they had to shower. Earl also helped make yearly calls to members encouraging them to renew their membership. He said that, at that time, payments were made manually each year, so members were reminded to pay their dues by receiving a phone call from volunteers like him.
Earl also described that ‘back in the day’ there were tote rooms in which members could leave their clothes, tennis shoes and paddles in small, wire baskets to air out after their games and workouts. He said that at one point they counted 400 paddles in the tote room – that’s how popular racquetball was at the time.
His family was very involved in the YMCA too. He and his family would go swimming during Family Fun Night on Fridays, a time in which you could bring your family into the Y for no extra charge. They would spend the first hour swimming in the pool, and then they would slide down the big brass fire department pole into the gym for the second hour to shoot baskets, run on the old wooden track (which him and his dad helped build) and just have fun. He said at that time there were no filters in the pool, so the water was changed once a week after Family Fun Night, which meant that the water on Friday nights was a bit cloudy – but they didn’t mind!
Earl became the president of Y’s Men’s Club in 1965. His family had the opportunity to participate in Christmas tree fundraisers and also attend the international convention that year in New Brunswick, Canada. His family also worked at the Y’s Men’s Club food stand every year at the Red River Valley Fair, in which they would raise money for the club by selling breakfasts and dinners. The stand had no walls or screen and it was right by the barn (so you can imagine the smell!). Earl helped raise $10,000 to build a bigger, screened-in stand. The club would, in turn, donate these dollars to the YMCA in order to help pay for things at the YMCA’s Camp Cormorant, like cabin renovations and sponsorships to allow less fortunate children to attend.
Through the years Earl continued to be involved in the YMCA, but what brought him in 4-5 times a week for decade after decade was, indeed, racquetball. In 2000, some of his friends at the YMCA even started the ‘Earl Lee Random Doubles Tournament’, an annual event that is still happening today.
Earl is now 91 years old and has been a member at the YMCA for nearly 63 years. He still comes into the downtown Fercho YMCA periodically (with his original membership card) to walk the track and watch all of the racquetball games being played. Earl described the YMCA as a big family. “I’ve met so many nice people there. It’s like a melting pot. Everybody is so friendly and treated the same.” He also said that “Sweating next to someone is a special association – like being a soldier” (and he would know, as he served in the Navy during World War II).
Earl Lee embodies the spirit and mission of the YMCA. He is a living example of the organization’s values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility. ‘The Y has always meant so much to me,’ he said over and over – and he means it.