Bob’s work with the Moultrie, Ga., YMCA began with just two hours a week teaching swim lessons to kids. It was a part-time job that would eventually turn full-time in 1966 when he became their Programs and Aquatics Director. This broadened his duties to planning summer camps and coordinating youth sports teams, a position he threw himself into wholeheartedly. It was during this period that he began to see the road ahead of him a bit clearer. Even though he still wanted to become an ordained minister, he realized that he had a certain ability to affect more young people and turn them toward God through the medium of sports.
He made the decision to complete seminary through extension classes, and he even pastored small “twice a month” churches in rural areas around Georgia. But this only served to cement his growing conviction that God’s plan for him could be found in his day-to-day work with young people and the opportunities he had to guide them spiritually.
“It was a culmination of things really,” Bob recalls. “It probably came from working at summer camps the first couple of years. Working with kids everyday, doingdevotionals and Sunday sermons, and seeing the response I would get. I’ve been very clear since then.”
Introducing youth to a Christian way of life, and teaching them that it’s not just about “rules and regulations,” but rather God’s love, has remained at the center of Bob’s mission from the very beginning. His goal has and remains to be the message that God has a purpose for each life and that he’s given us all kinds of opportunities through Jesus.
Using sports, he found that he could deliver this message to young ears without having to be dogmatic. But he also found, in his new role with the YMCA, that he might have to help create some of those opportunities where they were otherwise lacking. “The element of sports was always part of it,” he says. “Our local junior high did not have a basketball team for girls, so I coached a team for them at the Y. We were the junior high team and we played other schools. It turned out to be a whole new way to open up the door. In fact, we played the varsity team that year in a scrimmage and won. The next year, the school decided that they needed to add girls’ basketball to their program. It made the point.”
So much had been accomplished, both in Bob’s life and the lives of the kids he worked with in those first years that it must have been bittersweet when he left Moultrie. His first promotion was to a YMCA in the “big city” of in Bristol, Tenn., that his life would take a whole new turn. It was in Bristol that he met his wife Kay, a teacher at the junior high up the street from the YMCA where he had taken his position. While speaking at a school assembly, he asked a student for the name of a young single teacher. He had never met her but used her name in a humorous anecdote at the assembly. Later, he met her at a banquet he was emceeing. She had arrived with another date, but it wasn’t long before Bob won her over and they began dating. This year, on Groundhog’s Day, they will celebrate 40 years together.
Bob and his bride spent the next several years travelling for his work at YMCAs in Virginia and North Dakota before they found themselves back in Tennessee. In 1982, Bob was instrumental in starting a new YMCA branch in Brentwood, where he spent the next eight years building their programs, as well as his family with the additions of sons Robert and John.
In 1990, Montgomery YMCA President Bill Chandler recruited him to come to Montgomery as executive vice president. At the time, Montgomery was the first city in the country with a population under 100,000 to have branch YMCAs. “That was my predecessor, Bill Chandler’s doing,” he says. “When he [Chandler] came here in 1948, they had one building and two staff people. Now we have 14 branches serving about 70,000 people a year.”
By the time Bob took the helm as president and CEO of the Montgomery YMCA in 2002, he was well on his way to implementing many new programs of his own that focused on the changing needs of the River Region membership. One of them is the successful “Y’s Up Center,” a series of in-and-out locations around the community that offer adults a “no-excuses” alternative to the family gym environment. The idea is to be convenient, smaller, and more accessible to individuals with busy schedules. It is also a major component of Montgomery YMCA’s commitment to fighting the health crisis in our nation and in our community. Another program he implemented was “Y’s Choice,” which would allow a member at any given branch to utilize the Y facilities at any other location in the River Region, including branches in Montgomery, as well as those in Elmore, Macon and Butler counties.
For many years, Bob McGaughey has been heavily involved in a broader YMCA program that has become one of the most beloved and forward-thinking programs for high school students around the country. Operated by the Montgomery Area YMCA since 1968, Bill Chandler implemented what local high school students of the time envisioned as a “national model legislature,” based on the existing program that was operated through the Y in the state of Alabama. The Conference on National Affairs began at Stone Mountain, Ga., where a handful of Southern states participated.
By 1971, it had moved to the Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain, N.C., and has since grown to 38 states and includes almost 700 students. “We have folks come out of the program that are anywhere from the schoolhouse to the White House and all in between,” Bob says. “These kids are high-achieving, bright and motivated. When I look at the alums, I see doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers and housewives.” In fact, many of the alums are individuals working in Congress or have been special assistants to the president. Some have started national movements or been crucial parts of them, such as Ralph Reed who was executive director of the Christian Coalition and was one of the conference’s high school officers from Georgia in 1981.
Today, Bob serves as the director of the YMCA Conference on National Affairs, which includes overseeing the Alabama YMCA Youth Legislature and Youth in Government programs. Perhaps Bob is uniquely qualified to operate a program like the Conference on National Affairs, having been selected in 1963 to represent his home state of Georgia at Boys Nation in Washington D.C. While there, he and 90 other young men were invited to meet President John F. Kennedy. One of the young men accompanying him was a delegate from Arkansas, who pressed his way forward as any future president might, to shake Kennedy’s hand. The photo from that event, and the handshake, is now famous. Thirty years later, President Bill Clinton invited all of his fellow Boys Nation alums back to the White House for a very special reunion. Bob recalls that the “first time my children went to D.C. they got a tour of the Oval Office. I had to explain to them that not everyone gets to do that.
” Other than President Obama, Bob has had the opportunity of meeting and shaking hands with every U.S. president since JFK, a distinction he attributes to his work with the YMCA. As one might imagine, Bob has a storehouse of humorous and beloved memories of students from over the years, and has had the pleasure of reconnecting with many of “his kids” along the way.
He and his wife Kay, who has also been an English teacher, cheerleading coach, and Y Club Advisor, have been invited to numerous high school reunions and attended them all. In one case, a group of former students who all live within 90 miles of Blue Ridge have driven up to meet Bob for dinner each year for the past five years.
“The amazing thing is that these women who are in their 50s become 10-years-olds again. They remember songs we sang in the camp and everything we did. It’s both fun and hilarious, and a little scary,” Bob chuckles.
“Back when I was at Moultrie, we did a two-week residency camp in Pine Mountain, Ga. The facility closed down in 1975 when it changed leadership. A bunch of the old campers decided to have a reunion in 2010, and 175 people showed up! A lot of them I had not seen since they were 8- or 9-years-old. This was scarier because they remembered everything I had said. I always told my staff that you are what you emulate to these kids, and I really believed that, but it just really hit me between the eyes. This is 40 years later and they are all remembering things I said and did. It’s quite revealing. You really do become a role model. You don’t always know who you’re leading, but you better know where you’re leading them. You’re going to be an example whether you like it or not.”
Anyone who has had the pleasure of knowing and working with Bob McGaughey, whether they are a former student, a parent, or someone who he has served with on a board, will describe him as a humble and positive force.
“He always has a smile on his face,” explains Alabama State School Board Vice President Stephanie Bell. “He is truly committed to what he does in a way that goes beyond a job description. He is always thinking of other people, and never forgets a face, name, or the content of the last conversation he had with you.”
This year, Bob will serve as president of the Alabama NationalFair, just one of many civic roles he plays in our community, but he is very quiet about these roles and accolades. Ask him about “his kids,” however, and he has plenty to say. Besides his goal of bringing God into their lives, he is committed to helping young people find their own purpose in life.
“I challenge young people to look forward, find solutions, be positive, and realize that they are not the leaders of tomorrow,” he says. “Leadership begins today. If you wait until tomorrow, you’re behind. When I hear a kid say ‘I’m trying,’ I tell them, “Nike didn’t make millions of dollars with the slogan ‘just try.’ If you don’t take risks, you’re guaranteed not to succeed.”
Like Stephanie Bell, all three of her daughters participated in the Conference on National Affairs during their high school years. They too have wonderful memories of Bob’s influence on their lives and the lives of their friends. Stephanie’s youngest daughter, Katie, who is a first-year dental student at UAB and was an Alabama delegate to the National Affairs Conference in 2006, 2007 and 2008, summarized her feelings about the mentor who counseled thousands of kids just like her:
“Prior to meeting Bob at my first Alabama YMCA Youth in Government event in junior high school, I had witnessed the positive impact he had in my older sister’s life through various YMCA programs. It did not take long for me to realize how blessed I was to have such a Christian role model as Bob. Bob McGaughey is the type of leader who selflessly serves so many without expecting anything in return ... and he has always encouraged others to reach their fullest potential.
In addition to his many duties as Conference Director, Bob delivers a daily morning devotional at the YMCA Youth Conference on National Affairs in North Carolina each summer. It is truly encouraging to see delegates from over 30 different states from so many different backgrounds anxiously look forward to hearing the devotional each day.
While Bob has served as an inspiration for many across the United States, he has also been influential in encouraging young leaders to return to the River Region and give back to the community. The River Region is fortunate to have Bob McGaughey as a mentor.” While there might be plenty of laurels lying around Bob’s office that he might perch himself upon, he’ll have none of that. Even when he reflects on the possibility of retirement, he is considering how he will stay involved with his students, past and present.
Many people complete their workday and separate it from their personal lives. But Bob doesn’t seem to have gotten that memo. True, his personal life is rich with a family he clearly adores, including two young grandsons whom he lavishes his attention and abundant desktop supply of Jelly Belly’s on. But there is an enormous spot in this man’s heart for each and every child that he has taught and counseled over the years. Kids that just don’t want to let him go either, as evidenced by the average seven weddings he officiates for them each year. That’s right. Bob has found good use for his ordainment as a minister after all.
In the last 40 years, he has performed literally hundreds of weddings, all for his former students who call upon him to do so. He will get on a plane and travel anywhere he is called; it means that much to him. That speaks to a commitment far beyond the average teacher/student relationship. And in a time when commitment seems so rare, we can all hope that we’ll be fortunate to meet someone who will carry his dedication to the level Bob McGaughey has.