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Jim Everett

One more summer

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Boise Weekly's conversation with Jim Everett, who will step down as CEO of the Treasure Valley YMCA later this year, occasionally became emotional, which was no surprise—the lives Everett has touched are legion. Countless children know him as Jim; even more adults know him as one of the most successful chief executives in Idaho history; and come New Year's Day 2016, his first day of retirement, he'll embrace the title he loves most: Grandpa.

Scores of faces and voices raced through Everett's head as BW asked him to recall the many people who shaped his life and the untold people whose lives he has helped to shape.

"Maybe 'swim through my head' is a more appropriate term than 'race,'" said the man who first walked through the doors of the Boise Y in the spring of 1977 to become a swim coach. In 1987, he would ascend to the post of CEO, which he will retire from this December.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," said Everett.

BW sat down to chat with Everett about his decades of yesterdays and the decades of tomorrow that lie ahead.

Where does your professional relationship with the Y begin?

I was teaching high-school math in a town called Amanda-Clearcreek, Ohio. It was a pretty poor school district—not a lot of money for textbooks or lesson plans. I was also coaching the high-school football team. I got a call one day from the Y to see if I wanted to be their swim coach. I really thought I would ultimately be a full-time coach in high school or college someday, so I took the job for $6,800 a year. That was 1974. A man by the name of Jack Sizemore picked me up one day and drove me around town as we talked. There wasn't any formal interview, and he hired me that day. I basically ran the Y. I was in so far over my head but Jack believed in me. Lo and behold, I must have been OK.

Has that informed how you looked at potential employees over the years?

Absolutely. It's kind of sad that we've become a bit too risk-averse in hiring. Sometimes you have to say, "I believe in you." You hire for character; it's a lot more difficult to teach someone to be a phenomenal human being.

And you were already married at the time you took that job at the Marietta, Ohio Y.

We're both midwesterners but I met my wife Linda when we were both working one summer at a Colorado Dude Ranch. I fell head over heels. We got married during senior year of college. She was told she couldn't get pregnant and two weeks later, she was pregnant. And we always had a dream to go back west.

Tell me about your first trip to Boise when you interviewed to become the new swim coach.

I went for a run on what would someday become the Boise Greenbelt—it was just a path along the Boise River at the time—and I saw this amazing bald eagle perched high above the river. I knew this was the place.

And your first boss at the Boise Y...

...Was Darrell Scott. Everything I wanted to do, he would say, "Good, let's try it." He trusted me. I probably didn't know it by then, but I was going to be a lifer at the Y.

What's the capacity of your brain or your heart for all of the people who have touched you and you have touched?

There are a million stories. Everybody touches you in a different way. What you get out of this is way more than whatever you put into it.

I'm guessing that you've always looked young.

Some people thought I was a high-schooler on the swim team.

Have you always had good health?

I have. My dad died of melanoma when I was 8. My mom was a lifelong smoker, and she died of lung cancer way too soon. She was the toughest lady I ever knew.

Is your family's health history the reason why you do what you do for a living?

It was probably more about me being helped by others—teachers, coaches, mentors. They all took me under wing. And this job has always been about fun and play. Now I have grandkids. It's a blast to play with them: climb trees, ride our bikes. For my wife's birthday this year, I took a whole bunch of pictures and gave it to an artist to put on one big canvas. All of the images are us at different stages with our kids, and in every one of the pictures we're playing. George Bernard Shaw said, "We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing."

To that end, I want to discuss something I heard you talk about some time ago: Our unnatural focus on elite kid athletes.

We've gotten way off the path. Now, it's all about winning and getting a Division One [NCAA] scholarship. It's too rare that kids are getting the sheer joy out of sport. It about having the wind in your face and playing. But we pull the fun out of play and punish people with exercise, and we end up kicking too many kids to the curb because they're not first-string athletes.

Think of the amount of money it costs; some parents are paying $10,000 a year for a kid to be on a team that travels. And the emotional costs; we have 8-year-olds who think it's over when they lose a game. We even have national championships for young kids. That's unconscionable.

And the level of sports-related injury among children?

It's off the charts, but more important is the mental injury. I have said before that youth sports is one of the major causes of youth obesity in this nation.

I've watched people do a double-take when they hear you say that.

We have an unwritten rule that a child athlete either makes it or they don't. And even the kids who do make it quit playing when their career is over. Kids quit sports, and then they quit playing.

But where do you start changing that? You're talking about a major cultural shift.

We start with parents not living vicariously through their children. And for goodness sakes, don't specialize kids' play with only one or two sports. Slow down. Play more. Don't push them. It's on the kids' terms, not ours.

Can you speak to sideline parents who critique their kids too much?

It drives me crazy when I'm at a sporting event, and a kid swings and misses, and a parent shouts, "Keep your eye on the ball." What do they think? That the kid was trying to miss? Yet the parent brings it to everyone's attention? That's not helpful to anybody. You would never do that in a workplace, but we do that in sports, and especially with kids, all the time. What if our measure of success was about being part of a team, to lose graciously and win with some humility? I don't think it's a terrible surprise that we had the Lance Armstrong scandal. There's so much pressure to win, and that translates into the business world with the Enron or Bernie Madoff scandals.

I need to disclose something to you. When I had retired from this business some time ago, I was the director of a place called The Shepherd's Home and, at the time, we were the largest group home for foster children in all of Idaho. You probably don't know this, but I would write to your organization and ask you to scholarship our foster kids at your summer camps. Over the years, we probably had more than 50 kids at your camps and now, many years later, those kids are grown up and they tell me, to-the-person, that they'll never forget the time they spent at those camps.

It happens every summer. I can tell you that your foster kids were sharing a week with some kids from pretty wealthy families and other kids who had nothing. They never know. The empathy and understanding that they learn is something special. We all put our shoes on the same way. Camp is... [Everett took a long pause]. Well, it's magical, isn't it? I wish every kid... actually I wish every politician went to camp for a week where they're getting along with someone very different from them. Let me show you a picture.

[Everett went to his office wall, which was covered with photographs and mementos, and took down a small photo of a young man].

This is Dan. I think he was 9-years-old at the time. If you would have looked at all the kids when he first went to camp and asked yourself, "Which of these kids might end up in prison?" It would have been Dan. His dad had died, and his mother struggled with mental illness. Dan was a handful, but he went to camp. One year he became a counselor-in-training and then a counselor. He says Y camp was the first place where he was unconditionally loved, the first place where he was allowed to dream. He graduated 15th in his class at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and now he's serving his country.

Can you appreciate the fact that we can't imagine this place without you?

That's nice of you to say, but I've gotten a lot more than I put in.

Are there things you want to do when you retire?

You might see a few more letters to the editor. There are issues that mean a great deal to me: Medicaid expansion for example. It's unconscionable that Idaho can't do this. There isn't a business case or moral case not to do this. Every human being deserves the right to get the care that you and I get.

Does that mean if this issue surfaces at the Idaho Statehouse that we might see you testifying at a public hearing?

I'm not employed where I have to be careful of what I can publicly without misrepresenting my colleagues, you'll see me.

And Add the Words?

Let's face it, most people get this. If your faith base is Christianity, well, Jesus loved everybody. Why can't we do that? For goodness sakes, at least have some respect.

I would be remiss if I didn't note that, on more than one occasion during our conversation that there was a tear in your eye or a word got caught in your throat.

If I have half as much fun in the next 30 years as the last 30, I'll be a lucky man. I always thought I had the best job in the world, but it turns out that the best in the world is being Grandpa.