AUBURN — On his desk were a set of keys numbering well over 50. Some were broken, some rusted, many hard to differentiate from the other. Yet Jim Lawler knows which YMCA door each unlocks. After 29 years, he would. He came from playing basketball there as a kid to being its executive director for the past 22 years.

This month, Lawler is retiring and handing over the keys to the next director.

Lawler started as a part-time employee and steadily climbed through the ranks, first as the physical director of the building, then as its executive director. He took over the program during a period of economic recession and has increased its yearly budget from $268,000 to nearly $2 million.

“Jim was like a young-blood, he really wanted to see the center come alive again,” said Tish Caldwell, Auburn and Lewiston’s YMCA wellness director who has worked beside Lawler for 23 years.

And come alive it did. A-L’s YMCA went from a program serving mostly young men to a center with services for every family member. Over the past two decades, the building — built in 1922 — has been almost completely renovated.

A secluded lavender yoga room overlooks the city on the second floor, infants to school-age children run through the day care center, teen boys and men jog and lift weights inside the fitness center and free weight room, and the group exercise room holds 44 dance and fitness classes each week.

“When I started, the center was known as basically a gym-and-swim program,” Lawler said.

But the director is reluctant to take much credit for the Y’s successes, instead deflecting attention to his staff. He considers the people who’ve worked alongside him like a second family.

“None of our successes would be possible without fellow employees that share the same passion, commitment and caring attitude in delivering the mission of the YMCA,” Lawler said.

But Mary Murphy, the site’s associate executive director, believes the director deserves his due.

“He does things that normal executive directors wouldn’t do,” Murphy said. “He’s not a suit-and-tie type of guy. He’s not one to sit behind his desk and push pencils all day. He’s involved. If we have a flood downstairs, he’s the first one down there.”

Caldwell recalls when the center’s former bowling alley was being renovated into the group exercise room: “(Lawler) was actually the guy who got on his hands and knees and pulled the wooden floor out so we could put the (new) floor down.”

Despite starting a variety of new programs and heading a center booming with more than 2,700 members of all ages, Lawler said he is most grateful for the relationships. “For me, and the great staff that we have retained for many years, it has been all about building relationships.”

He cites the relationship he’s had as a mentor to Murphy, who’s worked with Lawler for 22 years. She rose from a high school student who worked as a part-time receptionist to the associate executive director. When she was a teenager, Lawler taught her how to drive.

“That’s just the type of person he is,” she said, “He’s very caring, passionate, he’s been my mentor over the years.”

If the center’s staff has become like a second family, the YMCA itself has become Lawler’s second home.

He visits the center each Sunday, his day off, to check on the pool. “Sometimes I think he’s around a little too much,” Murphy said. “He didn’t take enough of a break.”

But that’s just what Lawler has finally decided to do. “This will be my 29th year; it’s just time to move on and take some time off.”

On Aug. 31, Lawler will leave behind a center so popular and maxed out that a new facility is being discussed by the YMCA board. Even after his retirement, the director hopes to be involved in the creation of the new project.

Lawler said his appreciation of the YMCA comes from being raised in a single-parent household with many brothers and sisters and knowing that the center was always there.

To Murphy and Caldwell, his deep-seated presence is always felt, as well. Lawler attends dance classes, plays with the children and cleans toilets with staff members.

“I think ‘passionate’ would sum him up,” Caldwell said.

“There’s no doubt that whoever comes in will have some big shoes to fill,” Murphy said. “But he left the future director in a very good position.”

YMCA Executive Director Jim Lawler is retiring from the center after 28 years of service.

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