WORTHINGTON — Andy Johnson may be “the boss” at the YMCA, as evidenced by the signs in his office that read “Because I said so” and “The Boss’s mood today is.”
The easy going executive director is the first to admit, though, that he won’t ask anyone to do what he isn’t willing to do himself.
That said, you might find Johnson teaching preschoolers the basics of T-ball, helping to bale out water from a leak in the basement or checking in on a group of teens shooting hoops after school.
After more than 20 years leading the Worthington Area YMCA, Johnson is preparing to hang up his whistle and walk away from a career that dates back to his high school years as a day camp counselor with the Southdale YMCA in Edina.
Johnson announced his retirement months ago, and his last official day in the office will be Jan. 15. The search for his replacement is ongoing, with an announcement this week that of 25 applicants, eight initial interviews will be conducted next week.
The goal is to have the next CEO and executive director on board in February — sooner if possible. Johnson has already committed to helping with the transition as needed.
While he has reached the formula for retirement, Johnson isn’t ready to live a life of leisure just yet. He has his ears open for the next opportunity.
“I’ve got time to figure out what that might be,” he said. “I’m going to need to find a job — I’m not handy, I don’t fish, I don’t hunt, I know nothing about farming. I play a little golf. Maybe I’ll like that more — I don’t love it.”
What Johnson said he really needs to do is go for a ride in a combine — an offer he’s never had time to accept in the past.
With one eye to the future, Johnson has plenty to keep him busy these next six and a half weeks. A top priority is taking all of the YMCA knowledge and information stored in his brain and getting it written down for his cohorts and the new executive director.
After a more than 35-year career with the YMCA, that’s a lot of information.
Johnson, who grew up attending camps and programs through the Southdale YMCA, found his first job as a day camp counselor there at age 17. Through high school and even into his college days, he continued to work there part-time. Then, when he decided to take a break from college, he was offered a full-time job at the Southdale Y. He did programming for day camps and youth sports, did some membership sales and even worked in before- and after-school childcare at the facility.
He never made it back to college to pursue a career in education.
“I blame that on the Y,” he said. “I got sucked into the system.”
He doesn’t mean that negatively — it’s just how it worked out. His experience, combined with his attitude, led to opportunities, and he worked his way up the proverbial ladder.
“I had my hands in a lot of different things getting started and that’s kind of how a lot of Y careers started back then,” Johnson said.
From the Southdale Y, Johnson moved to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to accept a position at the YMCA there. It’s where he met his wife, Jayne.
“Our swim coach introduced us in 1986 — Thanksgiving night,” he shared.
The two-year stint in Wilkes-Barre lead to a job in a private health club in Atlanta, Ga. While there, Johnson received a call from a good friend, a YMCA director he’d worked with at Southdale who had moved on to Grand Rapids, Mich.
They were trying to get a YMCA in Grand Rapids, and Johnson’s friend, who had terminal brain cancer, needed some help.
“Just prior to his passing, he said, “Don’t stop — finish what we started,” Johnson shared. “He died at 36 years old.”
The Johnsons stayed in Grand Rapids for nearly a decade, and then the opportunity arose when Worthington opened its search for an executive director. It meant Johnson could return to his home state of Minnesota, although they’d be that much farther from his wife’s Pennsylvania roots.
Johnson accepted the position in Worthington in May 1999 and started the job on Aug. 1.
At the time, discussions were already taking place about the need for a new YMCA facility in the community. There were thoughts and dreams about what it should look like and where it should be built.
“We were working with a dedicated staff in a really old building and a changing community,” Johnson said, noting there were a lot of starts and stops to the discussion until, on Nov. 28, 2005, local businessman Greg DeGroot presented a $500,000 gift to initiate a project.
Four years later, in November 2009, the Worthington Area YMCA: DeGroot Family Center opened its doors on the campus of Minnesota West Community and Technical College.
Leading the organization during that time and seeing the new YMCA completed is at the top of a list of many great memories for Johnson in his tenure.
“There are so many other things,” he said. “It’s working with all of the great people within our community and the great volunteers.
“I feel good about the fundraising we were able to do for the new facility,” he added. The facility itself is debt-free, and fundraising efforts over the years — including the hugely successful YMCA Cruise Dinner — have supported kids and families in Y programming.
When the new facility opened, memberships increased by nearly 30%. Member levels remained steady with a slight dip seen in the last year and a half.
“Health clubs face challenges, insurance companies change reimbursement programs, the farm economy is tough,” Johnson reasoned. “Membership isn’t just a problem in Worthington — the entire state of Minnesota has challenges. I’ve seen these cycles before.”
The local YMCA works continuously to encourage healthy living and community engagement. Some of Johnson’s most memorable moments include seeing a sea of 800 participants take part in a YMCA-organized walk on the morning of King Turkey Day one year, to now watching as second-graders visit the Y to learn safe swim skills through the Jami Cummings Learn to Swim program.
Johnson’s role in the Y led to positions with a variety of community organizations — he is a 20-year member and past president of Worthington Noon Kiwanis, is involved with the local Optimist Club and served six years on the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors, including as its chairman in 2017.
“The way our communities work … is they need people in all different kinds of capacities. Our community is crazy busy with groups and people volunteering,” he said.
Johnson hopes to continue to serve the community in varying capacities after he leaves the YMCA. The family currently plans to stay in Worthington, where Jayne works for District 518. Their son, Andrew, is an accountant at Jaycox Implement, and their daughter, Morgan (and her husband, Jason Minett) lives in Marshall with the Johnsons’ first grandchild, two-month-old Lila Mae.
“I’m forever thankful I had the opportunity to come here and do the things I’ve been doing,” Johnson said of his career. “I can’t think of how it could be any different.”