75 years of The Boys & Girls Club
by: Dean Geddes
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Dick Glidden remembers walking into the Nantucket Boys Club for the first time in 1956 as a 7-year-old. The club was on Francis Street back then. There was a small gymnasium, which seemed giant to him as a little boy, a boxing and wrestling room, a woodworking room and a photography room.
There was also a small rec room with two pool tables and a small library of books and a card table. Back then Howard Jelleme taught wresting, Joe Sylvia, aka “Joe the barber,” taught boxing and Manny Araujo taught woodworking.
Glidden would get out of school at Academy Hill at 2:30, hop on his bike and be at the club by 2:34. He was one of between 40 and 50 boys who would go almost religiously after school each day.
“It was like my second home,” he said. “It was a great time to just hang out with friends and play sports or play pool. It was such an important part of my life growing up.”
The club has remained a major part of Glidden’s life well after his formative years. As an adult he served as its president, vice president, a volunteer coach and as a member of the board of directors for 30 years.
“I think it’s an important part of the community, and I wanted to thank everyone for all the things I was taught there and all the fun I had there,” he said. “It’s essential for all these people who have children and are working. It’s a safe place for their kids to go. They learn about sportsmanship, relationships and friends, and the club does a very good job of teaching them.”
Today, 75 years after it opened, The Nantucket Boys & Girls Club is more than just an after-school hangout for kids. It provides an essential service whose impact is felt across the entire island. There are 1,044 children who are members of the club, accounting for 70 percent of all public-school students. It has been, and continues to be, a lifeline for thousands of working parents, who know they have a safe place for their children to go when the school day is over but the work day isn’t.
In order to grow from its humble beginnings in the 1940s, when just a handful of boys gathered together after school, to what it is today on Sparks Avenue across from the highschool athletic fields, it took the support of the entire community. Three-quarters of the club’s current $2.2 million budget comes from fundraising and donations.
“We’re a very unique club. We are a flagship model that has been used by Boys & Girls Clubs of America because of our facilities and the programs that we offer. That’s a pretty big honor for us,” said Phyllis McInerney, the club’s executive director for the last 15 years. “I feel like we are a very special club. So many people here rely on us.”
In addition to the sports and recreational activities that have been a staple since the beginning, the club also offers homework help, reading, technology, cooking, arts and youth-empowerment programs.
“Athletics is still a huge part of what we do, but there is so much more now because we want every child to have something here they enjoy doing,” McInerney said. “Our programming has really exploded, and we’ve come really far from the traditional games room and athletics, because that’s what it used to be.”
But it wasn’t always that way. Prior to 1945 there was no Boys & Girls Club on Nantucket. The impetus for the club came during World War II, from the USO recreation center on South Water Street. Kids would press their noses against the window, watching the servicemen playing pool, yearning for a recreation center of their own. In 1945, the dream became a reality, as the first Nantucket Boys Club opened on South Water Street, in the Opera House building. At that time, it was strictly a boys’ club. Girls were not allowed.
Four years later, the club moved to a more permanent home on Francis Street. In order to make the transition possible, the community banded together, volunteering time and money. Island tradesmen donated materials and labor, and an elaborate musical show was held to raise money for the move. The plot of land was donated in memory of Ellenwood Schaper, who was killed during World War II. In 1949, the new club on Francis Street opened its doors, complete with a gym, offices and expanded facilities.
By the 1960s it was clear the Francis Street location couldn't keep up with the growing membership. After another major fundraising campaign, the club had enough money to break ground on a new facility on Sparks Avenue, on Aug. 18, 1965.
It was an ambitious project. Allan Congdon, an architect, and Howard Jelleme, the wrestling coach who was also a local builder, led the effort to build one of the biggest buildings on the island at the time. One year after construction began, the new clubhouse was complete. It had a much larger gym with locker rooms, a games room with pool, ping-pong and table games, a nurse’s office, arts and crafts space, a library and expanded office space.
Girls were eventually allowed at the club, starting with one day a week in 1975. By 1980, they were welcome every day, a girls’ locker room was built and they took part in a majority of the club’s activities.
When Glidden joined the board in 1975, the club’s finances were slim. It was a struggle just to get the electric bill paid. But that all changed when Lucile Hays came on board. Hays was a major catalyst for the expansion of the club through her family’s charity, the Weezie Foundation, established in the 1960s after Hays’ younger sister, Louise Frances Walker, was fatally injured while horseback riding on Long Island.
Hays joined the club’s board of directors in 1976, shortly after moving to the island with her husband, and still serves on it today, 44 years later. She was following in the footsteps of her mother, a board member of the Locust Valley Boys Club on Long Island during Hays’ childhood.
“When I came along, I approached Earl Girroir, who was the director at the time. I said, ‘I have a family foundation that gives away money to help children. Does your Boys Club need any?’ And he just about fainted,” Hays said. “They didn’t have enough money to pay his salary, and the building needed repairs that they didn’t have money for, so Weezie came along just at the right time.”
By 2000, the club was a well-established success, but it was beginning to outgrow its space once again as membership continued to climb. The club’s motto has always been that it will never turn a child away, but that promise was in jeopardy as the club was nearing its absolute capacity.
When the Sparks Avenue building was built in the 1960s, the club had less than 100 members. By 2014, membership had grown to more than 600 members, and the building was bursting at the seams. With a $1 million donation from the Nantucket Golf Club Foundation, the club kicked off its most ambitious project to date, a $10 million renovation and expansion. The work added 25,000 square feet of space to the building, including a 10,000-square-foot stateof-the-art gym, a new learning center, a technology center that houses new computer and server rooms, and an expanded activity center. “Everything is so different, everything is so much more opened-up overall. There is just so much more of an open and inviting feeling when you walk in the building,” the club’s executive assistant Justine Bistany said at the time. “Now it doesn’t seem like such a chaotic environment. When you walked into the old building all the kids were concentrated right in one area. It was overwhelming sometimes.” Currently it costs $275 a year per child to be a member, but the club spends an average of $2,200 per child, McInerney said. The difference is made up through private fundraising.
The annual Summer Groove is the club’s marquee fundraiser, named in honor of the late Tim Russert, the longtime host of NBC’s “Meet the Press.” A seasonal resident, Russert was a champion of the Nantucket club. He had grown up going to the Boys & Girls Club in Buffalo, N.Y. and knew the importance of clubs to communities across the country.
This year will be the most challenging yet for the club, as COVID19 restrictions limit what can be offered.
Jamie Foster, the club’s director of operations who is scheduled to take over as executive director at the start of 2021 when McInerney retires, said the club has focused its efforts on helping its youngest members while the Nantucket school system is in remote learning. Firstthrough third-graders will be offered the bulk of club time for the immediate future.
“We just felt that the kids who need us the most are the younger kids, because they can’t be home alone. Some of the working parents here were going to be put in a real bind with that age group, so that’s what we based it on,” he said. ///
Dean Geddes is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.