The how and Y (with video)
Read a related YWCA story here.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Think of a roaring city full of tall buildings, lots of confusing traffic and sidewalks teeming with people.
Charleston might not immediately come to mind but, to a girl from sleepy, small-town West Virginia in the early 20th century, it certainly looked like one.
"It was a big city," says Lorella Boggess.
At age 18, she moved to Charleston in 1939 to take a job typing and filing with the National Youth Administration, a New Deal jobs program for young people.
Where to stay in that big, possibly dangerous, city, so unlike the quiet streets of home? Back then, there was about one game in town for a young woman facing the bustle of the Mountain State's capital -- lodging at the Young Women's Christian Association.
It's not hard to find, among the women of the city's Edgewood Summit retirement home, tales of what that building meant to them when they were young -- and when they were older.
"It was a comfortable, safe place to stay for young women," Boggess said. "I stayed there through the winter in '39 up until the '40s."
She shared an apartment with another woman and a communal bathroom with a bunch of them. It was so many years ago that she doesn't recall too many details except for big important ones and oddly remembered little ones.
"No men or boys were allowed upstairs, I remember," she said. "The manager -- I guess she was the manager -- I remember her name, of all things to remember. It was Clotille Littleton."
The YW also was where a young girl went in high summer to cool down at a time when pools were few and far between.
"You didn't have a pool in every backyard," recalled Ruth Elam, who grew up on the East End. "As near as I can remember, there was one [private] pool, that belonged to Mr. Middleburg, who owned the Capitol Theater. If we wanted to go swimming, we either had to have somebody drive us out of town or we went to the Y."
Only, you didn't say you were going for a swim, said Elam who could walk to the YWCA from her home along with her East End girlfriends.
"It was called 'the Plunge.' We went for a 'plunge.'"
Forget about bringing your own bathing suit.
"It was required we wear their bathing suits, not ours. They were gray wool. And they had no shape. They covered us, and that was about it."
In 1947, Emily Warden moved to Charleston from the quiet, hilly streets of her hometown of Hinton, hoping to find a teaching job. "So I came to the big city to get that," she said.
She stayed with a cousin for a while. The cousin then asked her to move out for a couple of days, since she'd promised lodging to a visitor.
"She asked me to leave because this famous missionary was coming home. I went to the Y and stayed two nights - and I'll never forget that, because it was a safe haven for me and a place I had to go in a hurry."
She found work as a lifeguard at a YWCA summer camp. She feels indebted to the Y for an extra-special reason, since a young man she knew from Baptist Temple church choir came every night to see her at the camp.
Warden wiggled the ring finger of her left hand, flashing the diamond her future husband presented to her soon after. "It was very rewarding thing because I got this diamond ring while I was there."
Virginia Thomas recalled the YWCA's three-meals-a-day dining room, which opened Oct. 19, 1921, with a chicken and waffle supper.
If you had a couple of extra quarters, the YW cafeteria was a place to escape lunch food served at Charleston High School, Thomas said. "It was a treat to go over there and have lunch."
Years later, living in South Hills in the late '30s and early '40s, the YWCA cafeteria would be the place her family often headed to on a certain night of the week, she said. "It was 'maid's night off' on Thursday nights. My mother was not much of a cook and we often went to the YWCA dinner, as well as many of the other South Hills people."
As they grew older, the Y continued to offer itself to the women's changing needs.
Emily Warden found a different purpose for the pool than in the days of "the Plunge."
"In 1988, when I retired from school teaching, I joined the classes for arthritic people. It met three days a week and I was there every day for about 10 years. I became very acquainted with the Y and all the people."
Jody Stalnaker traces her personal fitness regimen to the YWCA.
"I really am very grateful to the Y because they got me started on exercise. I still walk and exercise every day," she said.
"There was one class I really liked, and it was probably in the '80s or '90s. It was Dancerobics. At that time, they had started letting men come to the YW. Our husbands wanted to know if they could exercise with us, we were having such a good time. So they opened it up and had a co-ed Dancerobics class.
"It turned out to just be a circus. The men actually were good. We just had a big time, and it turned into a kind of social event, too. We dressed up for Halloween and exercised in our Halloween costumes."
Stalnaker, a former Charleston City Council member, witnessed as well as helped along the YWCA's own metamorphosis, as new programs came along to meet the changing needs of women and families.
"In the late '70s and early '80s, the homelessness in Charleston had become a major problem, and there wasn't anybody that was doing much. They stepped in."
The YWCA's efforts to develop and grow its domestic-violence and homeless shelters and related social services had its fans on the council, Stalnaker said.
"We knew [YWCA director] Debby Weinstein really well at that point. She knew that there were about four of us on the council -- all women -- that we would be very anxious to get a homeless shelter. So, we were good supporters of the Y."
Stalnaker's Dancerobics cohorts, on the other hand, didn't find much longevity after they took their act to the streets.
"We even thought we were so good that they started parading in parades. It turned out to be a lot harder than any of us ever thought it would be. So we didn't last very long."
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-3017.