Walter Fleming Worrill made his transition into eternity at 3:52 a.m., April 8, 2013 in Pasadena, California’s Huntington Hospital.
Walter Fleming Worrill was born on May 12, 1914 to Oscar Sr. and Mary Anna Fleming Worrill in Covington, Georgia. There were twelve children born into this family in Covington: George, Thomas, Robert, Oscar, William, Florance, David, Addie Mae, Katherine, Walter, Marguerite, Brainard; and Edgar Lee, was adopted when his mother, Oscar’s sister Mahaley, became gravely ill. All of Walter’s siblings preceded him in death.
The oral history of the Worrill family dispersal from Covington, Georgia explains that Oscar Sr. “to avoid the revenue agents who were coming to arrest him because he had a still in times of prohibition, the family secrets were held to protect Oscar Sr. from any problems connected with having a still in Georgia.” The family was able to contact Oscar Worrill Sr.’s sister-in-law who provided the resources for him to flee the threat against his life on a freight train to Pasadena, California.
It was because of this that Mr. Worrill began relocating his family, in various stages, to Pasadena. Walter arrived in the last group to Pasadena in 1927. Upon his arrival he was placed in the 5th grade at the Lincoln Avenue Elementary School. He was eventually inspired to meet the academic standards of his grade level and went on to attend Washington Junior High School and John Muir Technical High School in Pasadena. It was at John Muir that Walter continued to meet his academic challenges and began competing in track and field, and became a member of the high school marching band.
In 1934, along with his brother Brainard and Jackie Robinson’s oldest brother Mack, Walt joined the John Muir High School track team that won the state championship. Upon completion of John Muir High School, Walt attended Pasadena Junior College where he continued his academic pursuits as well as track and field. It was there that he was introduced to the YMCA Movement Leadership Training Club. His interest in working with young people propelled his increased interest in YMCA work and led to his lifelong career as a YMCA professional.
Upon receiving his Associate of Arts (AA) degree in 1937 from Pasadena Junior College he was unable to continue his academic studies due to a lack of financial resources. He began a lawn cutting and landscaping business where he employed his brother and father who helped him service many of the wealthy homeowners of Pasadena. One of his clients constantly asked Walt when he was going to continue his education. He grew tired of his client’s repeated inquiries so he got a brochure to Whittier College (a YMCA training school) and gave it to the client. Shortly afterward, Walter received notice that he had a benefactor who would pay his way through Whittier College in California. With this financial support, for three years, Walt drove from Pasadena to Whittier, attended school during the day, drove home and worked in his business, studied all night and received his Bachelor of Arts degree in December 1941. He was at that time the only Black on campus at Whittier.
It was during this period that Walter Worrill met Anna Belle Gravenberg, a member of his church choir at the First A.M.E. Church in Pasadena. They courted and married in September 1940. Anna Belle and Walter’s first child, born on August 15, 1941, was a son they named Conrad Walter Worrill (Conrad in honor of Anna Belle’s older brother and Walter for his father). Upon completion of Whittier College Walter took on his first assignment as a member of the 28th Street Branch of the Los Angeles Metropolitan YMCA from 1942-44, before returning to the Pasadena YMCA staff from 1944-50.
Walt’s first YMCA office in Pasadena was on Holly Street where he organized a youth program for the young men of Pasadena. This work led him to become the first “Black Boy’s Work Secretary” of the Pasadena YMCA. Walt was very active with the Pasadena YMCA becoming one of its leaders in challenging racial discrimination in Pasadena.
Walter was the secretary of a local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter when the Los Angeles Chapter filed a lawsuit against the city of Pasadena in 1939 regarding the Brookside swimming pool, which was known as “the plunge.” Blacks were only allowed to swim in the pool on Tuesdays since workers cleaned the pool on Wednesdays. The NAACP won the lawsuit. However, rather than abide by the court ruling, Pasadena closed “the plunge” altogether until the NAACP got an injunction forcing its reopening on July 7, 1947, eight years later, without racial restrictions.
In 1950, Walter was recruited to join the staff of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago where he relocated in August of 1950. Big city life was challenging for the Worrill family. Upon their arrival in Chicago, the couple resided at the YMCA Hotel located at 826 South Wabash. The challenges for housing in Chicago at that time were quite severe. Fortunately, on their train trip from California to Chicago they befriended a waiter, Mr. Anthony, who owned a building at 5640 South Maryland. He had a vacancy on the second floor and allowed them to lease the apartment. His second son, Oscar William Worrill, was born the following year in April 1951.
For the next twenty-one years Walter served as Community Boy’s Work Secretary, executive director of the Wabash Avenue Branch, executive director of the Washington Park Branch, and then as district director of the Near South District. This district encompassed four full facility YMCAs with an operating budget of more than $3 million. It included a 1,900-room YMCA Hotel and a resident camp. The district itself had a total of 2,533 residence rooms, three swimming pools, and four gymnasiums. There was a working staff of 460 people, seventeen of whom were professionals.
In 1971, Walter became executive of the Middle Atlantic Region of the National Council of YMCAs, a position he held until his retirement in 1980. The Middle Atlantic Region provided support and consultative service to YMCAs in the states and territories of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. There were 243 YMCAs in these six states and territories. During his tenure as executive of this region, he had a professional staff of thirteen and was a catalyst in the organization of three management resource centers.
Worrill’s professional affiliations had been similarly exceptional. He served as president of the Illinois-Indiana Chapter of the Association of Professional Directors from 1963-66. He was also a member of its executive board for six years. From 1969-71 Worrill served as Secretary of the National Council of YMCAs of the United States.
In 1977, Walter divorced his first wife Anna Belle. In 1978, he married his second wife, Sylvia Adele Henderson. Sylvia made her transition in 2006. After Sylvia’s passing Walter returned to live in Pasadena. His first wife Anna Belle made her transition in 2007.
Walter was a deeply committed citizen of the community. For over sixty-years he was an active member of the Saint Mark Methodist Church in Chicago and Scott United Methodist Church in Pasadena, having served as Sunday School superintendent and secretary of stewardship. He also served as chairman of the trustees and chairman of the official board. He was a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and was an active lifelong member of the NAACP. Walter also served as a founding member of the Black and Non-White Directors of the YMCA.
After his retirement in 1980, Walter continued to serve as a consultant for the YMCA until 1988. On June 22, 1988, Walter Fleming Worrill was inducted into the YMCA Hall of Fame at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts. Walter Worrill’s work had great impact on the YMCA Movement and the community at large.
Walter Fleming Worrill leaves to cherish his life and legacy his two sons Dr. Conrad Walter Worrill (Talibah) and Oscar William Worrill (Denise), twelve grandchildren, twenty-one great grandchildren, one great-great grandchild, and a host of nieces and nephews and friends. He lived a long, productive, and impactful life that serves as an example to us all. The spirit of Walter Fleming Worrill will live on among us, as we continue to speak his name and remember his legacy.
Walter Fleming Worrill, Maa Kherew (True of Voice)!
Dr. Conrad Worrill is Director/Professor, Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies (CCICS), Chicago, Illinois.