The Harrisburg Area YMCA is an institution in the capital city, inspiring change and growth at all levels of our community. At the steering wheel, Richard Curl or Rich as he is best known, has been a steady hand and guide for the organization for 25 years. We took the time to sit with Rich and talk about his journey with the YMCA, and how it has shaped his life.
Rich came to the YMCA in 1977 freshly graduated from the University of Delaware. He had heard of an opportunity to be an Assistant Program Director at the Brandywine YMCA in Wilmington, Delaware, and needed to secure a job. The country was in a deep recession, and Rich was looking for an opportunity to get started. On the day of the interview, there was a major snowstorm in Delaware, and Rich put on his only suit, a “three-piece, cream-colored Johnny Carson 100% polyester suit” and drove his white 1966 Mustang to the Y. The Y was closed that day, and Brian Jones figured if Rich was willing to come out in the weather, he’d be a dedicated employee, so he hired him to take the job.
An Assistant Program Director at the time was an active role. Rich taught all kinds of classes and worked with members of the Y every day. Likeability was important, and he quickly found his groove with the YMCA’s fast pace. “There was a huge soccer league, we had thirteen different locations, and one of my jobs was to set up the goals at 5:30 AM on Saturday morning,” said Rich. “I thought, if I want to make a positive impression, I’m going to get there at 5:00 AM and have the goals waiting to be loaded. It had its effect! I’ve kept in touch with Brian ever since.”
A position opened at the Western Branch for a Program Director and Rich was asked to take on those responsibilities. Though he only stayed a year and a half in that position, he remembers that he was in a group of people to accompany the Olympic Torch on its way to Lake Placid through New Jersey and Delaware. As they came into Newark New Jersey, he remembers the bells ringing all over as they ran – a highlight of his time there.
In the late spring of 1980, Rich was recruited to the Philadelphia YMCA as a Physical Director – another step up in responsibility. Directly following this, Rich took on the role of Associate Executive Director at the Abington YMCA in the early 80s with Jim Sheldon. He remembers teaching 6:30 AM fitness classes, noon classes, and evening classes, always staying active – especially with his career-long friend Tony Fragale. Rich and Tony met at CDP (modernly known as Principles and Practices) by happenstance. Behind the scenes, Jim asked Tony to check out Rich and “see if he’s a jerk.” Tony and Rich had already become friends before Tony realized who Rich was. Needless to say, Tony didn’t think Rich was a jerk.
At Abington, the YMCA would host evening co-ed leagues that were the center of the social scene at the time. “People would come to the volleyball leagues like they’d go to the bar, lots of folks met their spouses at the YMCA leagues,” said Rich. “We’d keep playing as long as there was a full-time staff person sometimes until 2 or 3 in the morning.” Being a young professional, Rich was surrounded by like-minded friends who valued a healthy lifestyle and wanted to be social. “It was a lot of fun.”
His next step was as Assistant Executive Director for the Central Branch in Philadelphia, one of the largest historic YMCAs in Pennsylvania. They had 400 residents at the time, giving Rich a chance to experience YMCA housing firsthand for about six and a half years.
Following his time in Philadelphia, Rich became the Branch Executive for the YMCA in his hometown in Delaware in October 1985. Stepping up again after about six years, Rich became the CEO of the Lower Bucks Family YMCA in 1992.
On June 30th of 1997, Rich became the CEO of the Harrisburg Area YMCA. “The most exciting thing about coming to Harrisburg was the opportunity,” said Rich. “Up until the five years I had gone to the Lower Bucks YMCA, I had been on the branch side of operations, not the corporate side. I knew how branches needed to be supported, and I knew I could relate to the individuality of this YMCA. I was not just the CEO, but also the COO, and managed the Branch Executives directly. I knew that I could make lasting changes by working with a smaller team.”
Rich didn’t stay at the Harrisburg Area YMCA for lack of opportunities. After five years, Rich was heavily recruited by larger YMCAs, but he was working through several capital improvement projects, some of which were stalled. “I knew I needed to see it through, I couldn’t abandon the Harrisburg community with half-finished projects,” he shared. “The East Shore YMCA was under construction, but there were such significant delays and legal issues, I would have felt terrible about giving that burden to someone else.”
And it wasn’t just the East Shore where Rich worked through significant capital expansions during this time. The West Shore and Northern Dauphin County YMCAs were under construction and Rich knew that he needed to finish what he started.
Personally, Rich liked the quality of life in Harrisburg as well. “If I moved to a large metro area, I’d be commuting in a car or a train for hours each day – I’d never get to see my kids’ sporting events. I liked the life I had in Harrisburg, so I stayed.” Rich has three children: Steven, Michael, and Lea.
When he first came to Harrisburg, he knew the potential of the organization and brought fresh eyes to operations. He knew that all of his decisions wouldn’t be popular, but he worked hard to improve the organization’s financial stability right away. “The branches of our Y didn’t always get along at the time,” Rich said. “There wasn’t much money to improve the branches then, so I created an internal bank for the branches to borrow and repay themselves.” This working reserve is a way that the YMCA created stability for the branches to invest in improvements. The YMCA branches borrow from the fund and repay at a higher rate of interest than they would get from a bank, but as the loan is replenished, it grows the fund. This created firm support for the branches to keep their facilities top-notch.
Rich also created the Association-wide membership which allowed members to attend any branch of the Association no matter where they purchased their membership. “Prior to this, branches would make folks pay a guest fee to come to the branch, even though we were one association,” said Rich. “Adding the ability to go between our branches and removing competition helped us steer in the same direction.”
Right away, Rich knew that he needed to get out to all the branches of the YMCA and use them like he was a member. He would take a class at West Shore, hop on a treadmill at East Shore, lift weights at Camp Curtin, and head up to the Northern Dauphin County YMCA to use the machines. “I’d hop in the pool – are the gutters clean? You see so much more about the experience when you use the Y like a member. I think that went over well in the early days because people saw me showing up where the troops were.”
The first January Rich was in Harrisburg, he went to the West Shore YMCA at 6:00 PM, and there were only a handful of members working out in the gym. As anyone in the fitness business can tell you, that’s a huge red flag. Gyms are packed in January, especially after work hours. Rich led the charge, and they ripped out all of the walls on the second floor and added large floor-to-ceiling windows facing the parking lot to create bright, open space. “The membership almost doubled overnight,” said Rich. “We had clipboards to sign up for treadmills and 30-minute time limits to keep everyone moving.” All because Rich took the time to go out into our community and use the Y like a member.
Rich’s calling card at the Harrisburg Area YMCA is large windows. His influence is seen in the East Shore, Northern Dauphin County, and West Shore YMCA Wellness Centers’ large floor-to-ceiling windows. The impact inside is secondary to the impact on people traveling by the YMCAs in many cases. “I wanted people stuck in traffic on Front Street to see the East Shore YMCA lit up and full of people working out. It was more important than any billboard we could have taken out.”
The Executive Team at the Harrisburg Area YMCA has seen some incredible stability throughout Rich’s leadership. In fact, four senior staff members who still serve on the Executive staff were in place prior to Rich’s appointment in 1997. Jeff Allen, who currently leads the West Shore branch as Executive Director was Rich’s chauffeur during the CEO search that brought Rich to Harrisburg. “I remember taking him to all the branches,” said Jeff. “He was a great guy, very personable. I was glad when he got the job.”
Also on staff was Susan Jacobs, Executive Director for the YMCA Center for Healthy Living. At the time, Susan was newly in charge of the Northern Dauphin County YMCA, and she and Rich had a large task to create financial stability for the branch. “I’ll never forget Rich attending meetings with me, and how he went to bat for me with bankers and funders,” said Susan. “He really backs you up and helps you find success along the way. He did it again when I wanted to start the Center for Healthy Living. He just came along for the ride and helped me find success. He’s a great boss.”
Yvette Lynch and John Monsted both joined the YMCA about a year prior to Rich’s appointment as CEO. Yvette has been the Development Director since 1996, and John the CFO since a few months prior to Yvette’s start. “He’s very easy to work for,” shared Yvette. “He gives you space and time to make sure you’re going in the right direction and helps you any time you need it.”
John and Rich have worked side-by-side throughout Rich’s tenure and have made a real impact on the financial stability of the organization. John remembers meeting Rich and being instantly impressed by his interest and understanding of finances. “He and I were driving to a meeting early on, and he asked me to tell him more about why I look at depreciation the way I do,” said John. “Anyone who wants to talk about depreciation at length is my kind of guy.”
Rich hasn’t hired a direct report in nearly ten years. Jamien Harvey, Executive Director of the Camp Curtin and East Shore YMCAs was hired in 2011, and Rosie Turner, Director of Marketing and Communications (the author of this article) was hired in 2012. Chad Krebs, Executive Director of the Friendship YMCA led the East Shore YMCA as Executive Director from 2011 until 2021 when he was tapped to establish the new Friendship YMCA. Chelstan Anderson II, Executive Director of the Northern Dauphin County YMCA held the role of Senior Program Director and Acting Executive Director during the transition between Susan Jacobs leaving Northern Dauphin and establishing the YMCA Center for Healthy Living.
The longevity of the senior staff is an endorsement of Rich’s excellent leadership and easy management style. “I see a lot of Ys with a lot of turnover and they’re constantly starting over,” said Rich. “We haven’t had that. We have people on our team that know the mission and get to work. I’ve had the privilege of watching my senior staff grow into independent professionals in their field. It’s a great feeling to work with a group of people who work so hard and constantly bring new ideas to the table.”
The staff at the Harrisburg Area YMCA has established an incredible amount of community impact throughout Rich’s tenure. “If you look at where we were and where we are now, you can see the changes that our staff has endorsed and made successful,” said Rich. “The YMCA is so different from what it was in the 1980s – it can’t just be about membership and childcare. We have taken the initiative and broken out of that mold. The community doesn’t just see us as a gym and swim anymore.”
He’s right – the Harrisburg Area YMCA has grown from four financially challenged branches that had gyms and pools to five strong branches and a business unit providing a diverse mix of services and programs. The YMCA Center for Healthy Living has now worked with the state government to champion health and wellness programs across the state. The Camp Curtin YMCA is building houses and planting urban gardens to improve the block around the property. The West Shore YMCA has led the way in Parkinson’s’ boxing classes through Rock Steady Boxing. The East Shore YMCA is improving and changing the housing units, hoping to add to the quality of life for those in our care. The Northern Dauphin County YMCA runs mentoring and intervention programs that reach youth and teens in their rural neighborhoods. Notice that not once did we discuss anything related to a treadmill? And that’s only the beginning.
Rich’s philosophy throughout his career was to find something that needed a boost and to come and make meaningful change. He always wanted a fun culture, and to do that he needed the right people in the right places.
When asked what his advice might be for someone who wants to become a CEO at the YMCA, Rich said, “take everything in. You know how to do the stuff in front of you, but you always must watch for the things that come at you from the sides. While you’ll be focused on getting through the day-to-day, you still need a long-term plan. It’s not a nine-to-five job, and it’s not for everyone. But if you like people and solving problems, a YMCA CEO job can be a lot of fun.”
As he closes out his YMCA career, Rich has been taking stock of his experiences and enjoying the time he has left. “It’s been a really fun ride, and I’m glad I’m leaving it in capable hands,” he said. The next chapter for Rich includes plenty of time on the golf course and trips to his home in Florida where he can ride his bike to the beach. We also know that Rich won’t be a stranger to the Harrisburg Area YMCA – we expect to see him in yoga class to keep that golf form nice and loose.
Bon voyage, boss! We wish you all the best.