Progress: Growing stronger: Ron Willard was driving force behind Jerry Long Family YMCA

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 20, 2023

By Dan Kibler

Ron Willard was on the first Clemmons Village Council, was the first mayor of the village, been president of the Clemmons Rotary Club — and served in a handful of other roles that have taken him from a 34-year career with Reynolds Tobacco Co. to a 20-year retirement that’s been as busy as most peoples’ work careers.

But if there is one thing he’s done, however, that leaves the biggest imprint on the community and holds the No. 1 spot in his heart, it’s his role in the establishment and development of the Jerry Long Family YMCA on Peacehaven Road near its intersection with Lewisville-Clemmons Road.

“That has been one thing that I feel really good about — one thing that has been so rewarding,” said Willard, a fit-as-a-fiddle 80 who exudes energy from every pore.

“Clemmons needed something like the Y. Clemmons was a church community; that’s where all the social life was. They needed the Y, and it’s become sort of a community center for Clemmons. The Y became the driving force in the whole development for that area.”

Built in 1993 after Willard had to twist a few arms to get the attention of the head honchos of the Winston-Salem YMCA to even consider a satellite branch in Forsyth County’s leading bedroom community, the Jerry Long Family YMCA has exceeded everyone’s expectations, even Willard’s — and his were pretty high.

Originally covering 35,000 feet, the building now covers 100,000 square feet after four major expansion projects over the past 30 years. A branch that the Central Y crowd figured would be lucky to have 1,200 members topped out at around 14,000 before COVID arrived in 2020. Its 15 acres are literally crawling with people most days, pumping iron, swimming, playing basketball, jogging around the indoor track, pedaling stationary bikes and, on warm weekends, even buying produce at a community farmers’ market. Willard said the Jerry Long Family YMCA has the largest “Silver Sneakers” program for senior citizens in North Carolina, and it’s the biggest YMCA in Northwest North Carolina — providing some of the funding that keeps other satellite’s up and running.

Willard remembers the Y’s genesis, its starting moment.

“Back in 1988, I was on the board for the YMCA in Winston-Salem, a representative for the (Clemmons/Lewisville) area,” he said. “Jerry Long (former president of Reynolds Tobacco Co.) was the financial guy for the Winston-Salem YMCA, and he knew me. I had been involved in the incorporation of Clemmons — I’d gotten to know all the big movers and shakers in Clemmons and Lewisville — and at one meeting in 1988, Jerry said, ‘Ron, why don’t we have a YMCA in Clemmons?’ I said that you have to have interest from a community to want a Y — the Y just didn’t do it itself. He asked me to do some talking, and I said I’d check with people in Clemmons.

“It was obvious that we needed a Y in Clemmons.”

The Winston-Salem YMCA organizers required a feasibility study, and when it was finished, the downtown folks weren’t really jazzed about building in Clemmons.

“The Y spent $13K on the feasibility study, and when it came back, it said the best we could expect to raise in the Lewisville-Clemmons area was $750,000, and the most memberships we’d have in the first 3 to 5 years was 1,200. I asked, ‘Who have y’all been talking to?’ I knew better than that. So I called Mr. Long and gave him the news.

And Long gave Willard his marching orders — show the YMCA bosses downtown that Clemmons wanted and would support a satellite YMCA.

A small group of interested Clemmons residents met at the village library in February 1989 to talk about getting the ball rolling for a YMCA. A site-selection committee was formed at a March 2 meeting, and by August, the committee had decided on the present site of the YMCA and knew it would cost $300,000 to acquire it.

“Chuck Lott, who was the village manager, said he’d ask some real-estate agents if they knew about any property that might be available, and he found the 15 acres on Peacehaven. The YMCA bought the land, and that allowed us to start honing in on businesses. We started talking.”

That’s when Willard and a few others went, “hat in hand” so to speak, to the community and businesses in the area to solicit funds, with a $1.5 million target for a project that was targeted at $2.5 million. The Winston-Salem YMCA agreed to kick in a million dollars from a capital campaign if the Clemmons folks could double what the feasibility study said they’d be able to raise.

The village of Clemmons didn’t have a recreation department in 1990 — it still doesn’t — but it wasn’t willing to kick in any money on the front end.

“I was naive about how much time and energy it was going to take,” Willard said. “Over Christmas vacation one year, I visited 53 people, and 52 of them pledged money to the Y. But I knew we could raise more than a million in a heartbeat. At that time, a lot of us from Clemmons were going to the Central YMCA.

“I did a lot of cold calls; hundreds of people gave $50 or $100; that’s what got us there. I remember when we were at $600,000. Jerry Long had left Reynolds and he said he didn’t think he could ask them for anything, but I knew somebody else at Reynolds, and they gave us the money to build the gym. That put us at $750,000, but we still needed to get to a million. Then, the village bought 5 acres of the YMCA property for $150,000. They still own it; they lease it to us for $1 a year. And that got us there.

Getting money was tough, because we were going to people who were getting hit up for money all the time. People will give money to three things: they will give to their church; they will give to their college; and they will give to something they’re passionate about. So we were fourth, at best. And if you don’t have a good story, you’re not going to get any money.”

With $1 million in the bank in Dec. 1990, the Clemmons Y committee got $1 million from the downtown YMCA’s capital campaign. Bids went out, and ground was broken on Aug. 25, 1992. Clemmons annexed the YMCA into the village four months later, and the YMCA opened on July 18, 1993. By the next spring, plans to expand the new building were already under way.

“Ordinary people can do extraordinary things if they’re passionate, enthusiastic, persistent and have a vision,” said Willard, who served on the YMCA’s board until 2016. Shortly after that, he was asked to chair the Clemmons Medical Center Foundation by Novant, which was looking to put a satellite hospital in Clemmons.

“I need to slow down; I’m retired,” Willard said, chuckling. “I retired from Reynolds in 2003 (as vice president of new business development and agricultural research) and I imagined I was going to play a little golf.

“But people who I asked years ago to do things for me are coming back now and asking me to do things. I hate to say no. Sometimes it gets busy, but my life has been a wonderful life. Giving as best I can is something I can do.”