Ray Waller reflects on 60 years working at Kannapolis YMCA
By Hugh Fisher
KANNAPOLIS — It’s dark in the parking lot at the Cannon Memorial YMCA in Kannapolis, just before 5 a.m. Monday.
When many people are still sleeping, Ray Waller has already been at work for nearly 20 minutes.
He’s finished unlocking the doors, making way for the patrons who’ll come in throughout the day for a swim, a run or some other exercise.
Waller waits at the front desk, a quiet man who looks younger than his 84 years of age.
That may be due to the years he’s been active. He has worked full-time at the Kannapolis Y — first teaching aquatics and lifesaving, then working in the Health Services Dept. — since 1952.
Wednesday, he’ll mark 60 years on the job, and said he’s not planning to quit anytime soon.
“If they tell me to go, I’ll go,” Waller said.
Or, he added a moment later, if Claire, his wife of 58 years, asks him to.
But Waller’s friends and coworkers were quick to praise him. They described him as dedicated, a man of few words who does not like to be the center of attention.
“Ray is just one of those guys everybody loves,” said Brett Crosby, Kannapolis branch director.
“The people who see him in the hallways, he always makes them feel welcome … I bet he hasn’t been late for work a day in his life,” Crosby said.
Frank Melton, 79, said he’s been coming to the Y for decades, and that Waller is “like your barber” — someone who listens and has plenty of good advice.
“And, he taught everyone to swim in this city,” Melton said.
“Everyone who comes in here, we have such great regard for him.”
Ray Waller has been a part of the fabric of the YMCA, just as the Y has been a part of the fabric of Kannapolis.
Sitting in the sunny hallway in the Adult Department, with the noise of a basketball game faint on the other side of the doorway, Waller recalled how the YMCA was the community center for Cannon Mills-era Kannapolis.
“There was nothing like it,” Waller said. “It was like a family.”
Although the Young Men’s Christian Association had been an all-centric organization, by the time Waller came on staff full-time in 1952, the Kannapolis Y had a thriving women’s department.
His future wife, the former Claire Broome, was assistant secretary general of the Women’s Dept. back then.
Waller recalled a long list of Y men’s and ladies’ clubs, often made up of co-workers from departments at Cannon Mills.
“And then you had the Tri-Y and the Hi-Y,” he said. “The women would meet with the girls and the men would meet with the boys.”
The Kannapolis YMCA, located on the Cannon Mills property, was a project started by company founder J.W. Cannon and supported by his son, Charles Cannon.
The YMCA housed Kannapolis’ first movie theater, Waller said, and was the venue for company events and holiday celebrations.
When the time came for the annual Empty Stocking Fund toy collection, he said, workers at Cannon Mills lined up to give, while others gratefully received the new and refurbished toys.
And mill workers teamed up to compete when the annual fundraising campaign came around, Waller said.
He recalls the two teams — red versus blue — and how whichever team was ahead in fund-raising would be honored publicly: a red light burning outside the Y if the red team was leading, and likewise a blue light if their opponents pulled ahead.
Their efforts, Waller said, kept prices low so many more families could have memberships.
“The thing to know is, the Y was the center of the community,” Waller said.
It still is today, he said, but not in the same way, or to the same degree, as it was when Kannapolis was a “company town.”
When he started working full-time, Waller had already been a part-time employee, a substitute lifeguard.
As aquatics director, he did teach large groups of Kannapolis’ schoolchildren to swim.
In those days, Waller said, there wasn’t the same kind of individualized, one-on-one demonstration that swimmers today get in lessons.
These were classes, taught to large crowds.
“You’d have 40 in there at a time,” Waller said.
“You’d get in, demonstrate, tell ‘em what to do” — and then have them practice, Waller said.
During his years over the aquatics department, Waller taught a generation of Kannapolis children lifesaving skills that.
At the same time, many in Kannapolis remember Waller for the night in 1955 that he tried to save a well-known Kannapolis man’s life.
Waller was drinking coffee at a nearby drug store when someone ran into the shop, saying that someone’s car had driven into the lake at Cannon Mills.
When he arrived, Waller swam out into the cold water to try and rescue company executive A.L. Brown.
Brown’s car had jumped a low fence, Waller said, and plunged into the lake where it was half-visible beneath the surface.
“(Brown) was driving one of the newest kind of Cadillacs,” Waller said.
Others had already gone down into the water to try to rescue Brown, but had been unable to bring him out.
Waller pulled Brown from the lake, but doctors were unable to save his life.
“It was a loss to the mill and the whole community,” Waller said. “He was the fellow who ran the town and the mill.”
At the same time, Waller said he knows the swim lessons he taught helped save lives.
“I’ve had people come and say, ‘I’m glad you taught me to swim, I had to pull Daddy out,’” Waller said.
“It’s pretty good, to know you may have saved somebody’s life indirectly.”
Years of service
After 12 years over the Aquatics Dept., Waller switched to a new trade, giving post-exercise rubdowns in Health Services.
Today, he has a few remaining clients, but doesn’t take on new ones.
The YMCA’s clientele has changed through the years. Today, families with children fill the hallways.
Waller said he remembers mill employees showing up early for their shifts to shoot pool at the Y, or stopping in after work to relax with friends.
Others would stop in after work and take a shower before going home. “A lot of the Cannon Mills houses didn’t have showers,” Waller said. “In fact, a lot had outdoor toilets.”
He also remembers those who made the YMCA a success: Charles Cannon, Carlyle Rutledge and Walter Safrit, Sr.
“Walt was a unique guy, one of the greatest fellows,” said Waller.
“I get emotional about him. He was great,” he said, his voice quiet and somber.
Today, memorabilia from the old YMCA at Cannon Mills is on display in the lobby of the new building, which opened in January 1987.
Though much has changed, Waller said what he feels is most important about the YMCA has not changed.
“It’s the Young Men’s Christian Association,” he said, with emphasis. “And there was always a real emphasis on the Christian aspect of it.”
He recalled how members used to lead prayers for schoolchildren.
And when the YMCA hosted Bible studies, Waller said, “we’d fill up. We had two rooms we could put together, and we’d fill those up.”
In later years, Waller said, some smaller churches have used the Y as a place to hold services.
He said he’s glad the Y still emphasizes Christian values.
Waller also said he’s positive about the changes he’s seen in Kannapolis.
Today, instead of textile workers, scientists and staff from the N.C. Research Campus come in to exercise. He said he’s enjoyed talking to them and learning about the future.
Asked if he believed Kannapolis would continue to prosper, “I think it will,” Waller said.
Hard work and dedication carried Ray Waller through 60 years of service to the Cannon Memorial YMCA.
And will carry him on into the future.
After all, he said, “there ain’t anybody else going to come up at 5 (a.m.) and open the door.”
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.