PITTSFIELD -- When the Pittsfield Boys & Girls Club was in its infancy (it was just the Boys Club), it offered cobbling clothes and materials so that members could be taught to repair their own shoes. Mechanical drawing and a boys’ orchestra were soon added amid the rooms within the Renne Building on Fenn Street that served as a base of operations.
There was a small library, table games and, of course, basketball for the athletically gifted, and even those who weren’t. Boys Club founder, sponsor and benefactor Zenas Crane, of Dalton, had his expanded visions for the club carried out by Prentice Jordan, the club’s first executive director (superintendent), and William Stevenson, the first president of the board of directors.
Inspired by the success of its humble beginnings, Crane built a new Boys Club on Melville Street that was dedicated in 1906. It has served the best interests of boys -- and most recently girls -- for more than a century under the guidance of the five directors who followed in Jordan’s footsteps. That short list includes James Keegan (1920-1950), Fred Fahey (1950-1971), James Mooney (1971-1990), Craig Crosier (1990-1998) and Peter Bell, who recently resigned "amicably" after a 15-year term.
Despite the incongruous philosophical platforms that may have existed between Bell and the current board of directors, the former executive director is expected to have his portrait hang in the upper lobby alongside those of Crane and the other five directors who served famously in that capacity.
The search for Bell’s replacement is currently underway, while David Harte Jr., serves as interim director. The 22-member board, meanwhile, is said to be reshuffling and refocusing as it prepares to hire a new director and find new ways to integrate its many programs into the community.
Seen perhaps as a "jock factory:" by some -- and it’s true that the youth basketball programs are booming like never before -- an overview of what the club offers reveals more than just sports-themed activities. Between 1,000 and 1,500 members come in and out of those Melville Street doors every day, and not all are bouncing basketballs.
Bell’s paid leave of absence that began around Thanksgiving and his recent resignation sparked more questions than it did offer answers, as the board unfortunately drifted into a no-comment mode. But employee-personnel matters are often handled that way, and few with credible reputations are claiming that Bell did anything but perform admirably during some demanding times in those 15 years.
But times and people do change. The culture of Pittsfield has changed. Six of 10 club members currently qualify for the free or reduced lunch programs. The board, meanwhile, is learning how to become closer to the existing climate under its roof and has started to look hard into the mirror in terms of being held accountable for perceived or real failures.
The days of signing off on the latest "wish list," shaking hands and heading home are over, and a growing number of board members are seeing that light. Attitudes are changing and policy shifts are close behind.
Differences aside, the board and Bell have always acted in the best interest of its members. Put 22 people in a room, though, and see if you can get them to agree on anything. In the meantime, if you see Bell, wish him well on his future. If you know and see any member of the board, then wish them well, as they attempt to weed down what’s already a growing list of what will no doubt be co-gender applicants.
In the meantime, don’t hold your breath for the return of that cobbling program.
Speaking of holding your breath, here’s one of my favorite club stories.
My mother never learned how to swim and that fact helped me springboard into a successful career as an amateur table tennis player. I wasn’t interested in taking swim lessons at the club, but I didn’t have a vote. Mom didn’t want her eldest son to be found one summer day at the bottom of Onota Lake next to Davy Jones’ locker, so she signed me up.
I was dropped off, but instead of heading down to the pool, I squared out left and went up the stairs to the game room, where caroms and table tennis were in full swing.
I went into the boys’ room when it was time to go outside and wait for my ride home. I drenched my hair and bathing suit and made sure I was not quite properly dried while waiting in freezing temperatures outside on Melville Street. Mom, not being a swimmer, never figured out that the lack of any chlorine smell was a dead giveaway that I hadn’t been near the pool.
But a career as a slammin’ southpaw table tennis player had taken root, and for that I thank the club. Swimming I figured out in later summers at Onota. But that game room was a nifty haven during those weekday nights that one memorable winter.
Brian Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com.