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David R. Wehrmeister was in fourth grade in the 1960s when a Boys Club was built near South Avenue and Broadway a few blocks from his South Toledo home. He joined, hanging out after school and returning after dinner for countless hours of sports, wood working, ceramics, the leadership group, and plain old fun.
Still active at 16 when he attended Catholic Central High School, he was hired as a check-in and coat-check clerk for $1.25 an hour. He continued working with kids at the club while studying to be an English teacher at the University of Toledo, through four years of substitute teaching, and raising a family.
Decade after decade, he climbed the ladder from instructor, project coordinator, program director, a leader of a project that would result in girls being included in 1982, and operations director. In 2000, he was unanimously named the 10th executive director of the organization that helped launch him and thousands of other boys since 1892.
“I’ve known Dave since he was 9 and I was the game-room instructor, a part-time job while going to UT,” says Stan Lewandowski, director of administrative services, in his 47th year with the club. “He was the same as he is now; very focused, energetic, driven. The club had about 500 members and 75 of them just about lived there, including Dave.”
Nearly 50 years later, Mr. Wehrmeister’s passion is undimmed.
“There is not a more rewarding career than working with Boys & Girls Clubs,” he notes in his biographical summary. “I have witnessed both personally and professionally the impact that the club has on the lives of its members.”
Eighteen-year-old Reza Parkman’s a good example. At 11, a bullet shot by a boy fooling around with a gun pierced her stomach and nearly killed her. Then, she says, sounding weary at the memory, she lived with friends and relatives for three years, and she became a regular at the Homer Hanham branch at Detroit Avenue and Monroe Street.
“It gave me guidance, trust, provided me with the love and care that I needed.”
Ms. Parkman will begin UT in the fall; she’s the recipient of a Carson scholarship from the clubs as is Daquze Stephens, 18, a UT sophomore. He came to the Hanham branch in fourth grade and works in the junior games room five days a week.
“I had an opportunity to do it all [as a member] and took full advantage of everything,” he says. “I had a positive place to go to after school and hang out, make friends, and stay busy; better than getting caught up in doing the wrong things.”
His take on Mr. Wehrmeister?
“Dave is a caring individual who always puts the members first and always looks out for them. He wants to make sure they’re having fun at all times. And he’s always available to the members,” says Mr. Stephens.
Mr. Wehrmeister, 56, oversees the club’s $1.9 million budget, 60 to 75 full and part-time employees, four central-city locations, its fund-raisers (the largest is Barefoot on the Beach, Aug. 17), and the 61-acre Camp Big Silver in Pinckney, Mich. to which it sends 300 youngsters each summer. Membership is more than 8,200 from ages 7 to 17, most of whom are able to pay the $3 annual membership fee. About 55 percent are male, 67 percent African American, and 100 percent are Tomorrow.
“Kids are our future leaders,” he says.
He knows the names of most youngsters at Hanham club where his office is located, and many at the three other locations: Marshall School in South Toledo, East Broadway Elementary School in East Toledo, and Sherman School in North Toledo.
Founded as the Toledo Newsboys Association, the club has had a long partnership with Toledo Public Schools; it reached a new level in recent years when TPS built and renovated all its schools. Club leaders proposed incorporating large game rooms and offices in those three buildings, and were involved with architects at the design phase of the two new ones (Marshall and Sherman). Immediately after school, kids come down the hall to the club with its game tables and gathering space for tutoring and play, and are able to use the gym, library, art and music rooms, and cafeteria. The club contributed more than $1 million toward construction and pays rent to TPS.
Mr. Wehrmeister has also built partnerships with the Toledo Zoo, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo Area Humane Society, Boy and Girl Scouts, and Imagination Station.
Of 4,000 Boys & Girls Clubs, “Dave would be in the top three percent. He’s one of the ultimate leaders of the clubs across America,” said Jim Clark, president and CEO of the national federation. “He stands out. He’s talented and goes above and beyond to ensure the best experiences for kids.”
“He’s a wonderful collaborator,” says Mary Fedderke, director of institutional advancement at the zoo. “Part of what’s such fun working with him is his enthusiasm for the kids. He lights up and is ready to do whatever it takes to make it happen.”
He readily admits he misses the day-to-day interaction with kids and their parents.
“Absolutely,” he says, “watching them learn and grow. But I recognize the importance of what I’m doing now.” Relationships with young, successful staff members are the most important reason why kids keep coming back.
He’s especially proud of helping to nurture a teen from the East Toledo club to a ceremony in the Oval Office. Ten years ago, Mieasha Hicks, underwent a rigorous months-long application/interview/speaking process that culminated in her winning National Youth of the Year for Boys & Girls Clubs of America. She spent much of her freshman year in college giving motivational speeches around the country.
“He was there for me every step of the way; very encouraging, motivating. That was something I didn’t expect him to do as executive director,” says Dr. Hicks, 28. “I would practice my speeches in front of him and a couple other administrators, and he’d keep me focused on who my audience was. He was at almost every speaking engagement. I could count on him no matter what.”
Dr. Hicks is in the second of a three-year foot-and-ankle surgical residency at Grant Medical Center in Columbus. Scholarships, including substantial support from the Boys & Girls Clubs, paid her undergraduate expenses at Bowling Green State University. During college, she often came back to study at the East Toledo club, simply to be a role model, says Mr. Wehrmeister.
‘I love Toledo’
He counts, among his good fortune, having a stellar board of directors. “Each and every one is willing to work tirelessly for kids.”
Connie Schmidt is a 15-year board member and recent past president.
“He’s not a stay-in-the-office, 9-to-5 guy. He gets out and around to the clubs and the camp just to see how things are going,” she says. “Dave is an amazing leader. He’s very low keyed, very calm, quiet, organized. And he absolutely inspires those around him to give the best they can. He’s very collaborative and a very, very effective leader; every bit as effective as corporate CEOs I know, many of whom are much more forceful.”
In 2009, he received the Heart & Soul Award, the highest honor given to a club professional in the Midwest.
He describes his management style as a coach, flexible, and having an open door. “But decisions have to be made,” he adds.
Living in the Beverly neighborhood and married to Lisa (“the love of my life and the greatest accomplishment I ever did”), he’s the father of Adam, 30, Nathan, 27, and Anna, 14. He plays golf and loves to cook goodies such as cream puffs, beef tips and dumplings, kibbe, and Mexican.
“I love my community. I love Toledo.”
Contact Tahree Lane at email@example.com.