Retiring executive director Jim Asleson quietly likes to remind people that the Mid-Willamette Valley Family YMCA isn't just another fitness club. It’s actually one cog in a worldwide faith-based organization that dates back to 1844, and its acronym stands for the Young Men’s Christian Association.
For the last 25 years, Asleson — who did not grow up in a community with a YMCA — has guided the local chapter's growth, including the development of the new $17 million complex that opened three years ago.
“It was God who drove me to the YMCA and who has helped me all along the way,” he said. “I didn’t even know what YMCA stood for when I got my first job.”
Born in a small Iowa town, Asleson and his family moved to Wisconsin when he was 10 years old. He grew up to attend the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, starting off in accounting and switching to physical education.
“I like accounting, but found it too confining,” he said. “That knowledge, though, has come in handy running the Y.”
Asleson, 63, was the Albany Chamber of Commerce Distinguished Service Award recipient in 2017, and says it's time for him to do something else in life with the talents God has given him.
“We have such a large facility now, 60,000 square feet,” he said. “We went from 70 employees to 140. We have more than 5,500 members. It’s difficult to maintain intimate relationships and to meet the needs and goals of our members. It’s hard to reach everyone. Our goal was to get bigger, yet retain our small operation feel.”
Asleson has spent 40 years in numerous capacities with YMCAs in North Carolina, Colorado Springs, Portland and Albany.
He had helped complete a major building project in Charlotte, North Carolina, when he interviewed for the Albany position. Albany's YMCA was housed in a former implement dealership constructed in 1944. Its board bought the building for $200,000 in 1959 to charter the local organization.
“I interviewed with the board and really liked them and the community,” Asleson said. “But the facility wasn’t much. We stood outside the building and my wife asked me if that was really what I wanted to do. I said the potential was here and I have never been sorry.”
It was actually through the YMCA that Asleson met his wife, Elke.
“She is from Calgary and was in Colorado Springs to train for the Pike’s Peak marathon,” he said. “You have to acclimate to the higher altitude since the race goes up to 14,000 feet and back down. I was in charge of the YMCA’s camp to help the athletes do that. We were married a year later.”
Elke is retired from Western Oregon University, although she continues to teach a spin class. She's completed 30 marathon races and competed in the Iron Man triathlon in Kona, Hawaii. Jim has completed nine marathons.
He called their marriage “awesome” and said their son, Kris, 30, owns Midas Marketing in Portland. He also founded Truth X Vision, which works to help develop small farms in Ghana.
Asleson is especially proud that the new YMCA will “positively affect families for generations to come.”
“I know we are leaving this organization in better shape than we found it for our staff, our volunteers, donors and our community,” he said.
Asleson said he's surrounded himself with staff that “has the vision, capacity and desire to push forward. Their attitude is that we are going to do this. We may not know how, but God willing, we will get it done.”
Asleson said he learned to play the guitar when he was 18 and that talent has come in handy in many ways.
“My first week in Albany I called the Democrat-Herald and told them they might want to come to the YMCA the next day because Elvis was going to be here,” he said. “I had never performed as Elvis, but I did that day and the story was on the front page. It was a great way to tell the community there’s new leadership at the YMCA.”
Asleson has since performed as Elvis locally and even entered an Elvis impersonator contest on the Oregon coast that drew participants from across the country.
But he’s probably best known musically for writing personal tribute songs about local people. He sings them at chamber of commerce programs, birthdays, retirements and church events.
“I probably write three or four tribute songs a year,” Asleson said. “I like to capture someone’s story, put it to music and then create a CD that includes photos. It’s extremely rewarding to do that for people.”
Asleson even wrote two songs for his own wedding. On his and Elke’s 25th wedding anniversary, he had a boat captain play them over the loudspeaker and he presented his wife with her own CD.
“God gives us talents to use,” he said. “Music makes people feel more comfortable. They aren’t threatened and it’s a good door-opener.”
The family is planning a trip to the Midwest and to Canada. He and Elke also enjoy traveling to Hawaii.
Asleson’s last day of work will be Dec. 31. Katie Miller will be the interim executive director at the YMCA board begins a nationwide search for a successor.
Asleson said he knows it’s time for a new adventure.
“I don’t know yet where I’m headed,” he said. “I’m excited to see what else God has in store for me. For right now, I’m going to exhale and enjoy.”
Kristal Dufour, chair of the YMCA board of directors, praised Asleson’s devotion to his work.
“We are going to deeply miss him,” Dufour said. “He has been an amazing leader and had the vision to take our YMCA to its current level. He has done an outstanding job for us and for our community. He provided us with outstanding dedication and service for 24 years. Without his vision and persistence we would not have the beautiful new facility that we enjoy today. We wish him the happiest of retirements.”
Dufour said a nationwide search will begin in January.
“We hope to have someone in place by the fall,” Dufour said.