YMCA mourns former Tacoma leader who took organization out of all-male era

John Morgan’s late-night painting sessions continue to resonate in the halls of the Pearl Street YMCA, the building that bears his name today.

As Tacoma’s second YMCA was nearing completion in 1977, the former executive director was known to work until midnight, diligently painting the walls of the pool and throughout the building.

“He led by example,” said Charlie Davis, Morgan’s friend and colleague at the YMCA. “His work ethic was unparalleled.”

Morgan died Aug. 1 — his 90th birthday — after a long battle with cancer. He was surrounded by family at his apartment in Tacoma.

It had been only 10 months since his wife of 67 years, Shirley, died of congestive heart failure.

In 1969, Tacoma community leaders handpicked Morgan to run and revitalize the local YMCA.

Davis said Morgan’s leadership restored the community’s confidence in the Y as an organization that could offer quality programs and recreational facilities for the community.

He said Morgan was instrumental in securing funds and resources for the Pearl Street facility, and laid the groundwork for the Lakewood center that opened after his retirement.

After the Pearl Street opening, enrollment jumped from 600 to a combined 15,000 members at the Y’s two locations, said Clint Scott, a former branch executive and a friend of Morgan’s.

“We couldn’t process them fast enough to get them in,” he said.

Morgan transformed the Y from a club with a membership of mostly men into a family organization that offered a wide array of activities and classes, Scott said. Today, the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties has seven branches focused on youth development and healthy living; new branches in Sumner and on the University of Washington Tacoma campus are under construction.

An avid cyclist and outdoorsman, Morgan biked across his home state of Iowa twice with his wife, and climbed to the summit of Mount Rainier with his daughter in 1973.

After a 41-year career with the YMCA, he retired as CEO of the Tacoma YMCA in 1989.

During retirement, Morgan traveled with his wife around the world and continued to meet with past colleagues and visit YMCA programs across the South Sound.

Davis said Morgan’s commitment to the YMCA was an inspiration to him and many other staff members.

“It gave me a greater sense of purpose within my own work,” he said.

On the day of his death, Scott said he and more than a dozen past colleagues, former YMCA board members and friends came to say goodbye.

Morgan’s daughter, Jean Dawkins, said it has been amazing to see the impact her father had on so many people.

“It was such a testimony to his legacy,” she said. “He was loved deeply by many people.”

A memorial service for Morgan is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Aug. 23 at University Place Presbyterian Church. He is survived by his three children and two grandchildren.