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Lee Retiree Judy Powell YMCA's heart and soul

Photo by Avan Clark

Photo by Avan Clark

LEESBURG -- After more than 33 years as the heart and soul of the Albany YMCA, Judy Powell retired to little fanfare at the end of January.

She swears that she means it this time.

Of course, she meant it seven years ago when she "retired" for the first time.

"When I had an opportunity to pursue a Y branch in Lee County, I had to be a part of it," said Powell, who has been called by current Albany YMCA CEO Dave Wallace the "long-time face of the Albany Y." "It had been a dream of mine for a long time, and I wanted to see it launched."

Powell headed up the fundraising campaign and worked doggedly for a year to see her dream reach fruition. Satisfied, she walked away from the organization she'd become synonymous with on Jan. 31, content, she says, to settle with her "kids" -- rescued shih tzu Buffy and yorkie-poo Sassy -- into a new life of service and travel.

Not that those who know her best believe she'll ever completely distance herself from the Y.

"I knew the day was coming that she would officially leave the Y," said Wallace, who came to Albany from Charlotte, N.C., in 2003 partly because of Powell. "She deserves that opportunity to explore other interests while she's still young enough. But whatever role she takes with her life, I believe she will always be a strong advocate for the YMCA, for kids and for Lee County."

Anna Lee O'Neil, one of Powell's associates who soaked up her knowledge for 15 years at the Albany YMCA before moving on recently to take a position as director of a YMCA branch in Robertson County, Tenn., some 35 miles north of Nashville, said Powell's influence will remain long after she's settled into a new phase of her life.

"Judy wants every child to have that circus experience, to know the joy of childhood," O'Neil said. "And there are so many kids in the Albany area who got that opportunity because of her. Children are Judy's heart; she came back from retirement just to make sure the children of Lee County had a Y.

"Judy has always been tough but fair, and if you trained under her, you know how to run a program. There are people all over the country running Y programs now based on they what they learned from her."

In addition to O'Neil, that list includes Teresa Rogers at Daytona Beach, Fla., Everett Calloway in Hartford, Conn., David Case in Idaho.

"I've had great role models in my life -- B.B. Rhodes, (former Albany Y Director) Tim Ward, my older brother Robert -- and I've tried in my career to be a resource for the people I've worked with," Powell said.

Born in Albany 62 years ago in August, Powell moved with her family to Lee County when she was young. Her heart settled into the small community, and it will no doubt reside there for the remainder of Powell's lifetime.

The young Powell's plans to become an elementary school teacher changed when, during her last year at Albany Junior College (now Darton), one of her instructors encouraged Powell to change her major to physical education. She completed requirements for a P.E. degree -- with a minor in recreation -- at Georgia Southwestern College (now Georgia Southwestern State University) in Americus.

A brief stint as a P.E. instructor at Albany Junior High School taught Powell one major truth: "I figured out that teaching's not my thing," she said.

Re-enter Rhodes, who had hired Powell as a summer lifeguard at the Albany Boys Club when she was a teen.

"I really wanted to move away from Albany, but B.B. contacted me and told me he needed an aquatics instructor at the Y," Powell said. "I told him no, but he asked me to eat lunch with him and talk about it. He'd moved from the Boys Club to the Y, and he told me that I should at least give it a try.

"I did, and of course, I fell in love. I was planning to work at the Y until I found something else to do, but I was like Bre'r Rabbit in the briar patch."

Over the years Powell worked as aquatics instructor then as community, membership and finance director before settling into the associate director's post.

"I got offers to move over the years, but I chose to stay," Powell said. "This community had become home to me, and there were just so many opportunities here."

The YMCA expanded over the years from its central facility at 1701 Gillionville Road to its sports park at 4508 Gillionville and finally its Lee branch at 116 Starksville Ave. And while the latter facility was completed within the last year -- largely through the efforts of Powell -- the Albany YMCA had begun outreach programs in Lee County as early as 1991.

"I had known Mr. Robert B. Lee all my life, but after he had a stroke, he started coming to the Y to work out and we reconnected," Powell said of the renowned Lee County businessman. "He told me that we needed to have a Y facility in Lee County and that one day we would.

"When Mr. Lee passed away, his family decided to act on the idea as a tribute to him. The Y had done a market study in 2000, and one of the things it found was a need for a branch in Lee County. The Lee family donated 20 acres of land, and we started pursuing a facility. Just because we had the land didn't mean a building was going to spring up. We raised $2 million to get the project off the ground."

So now, Powell -- who "surprised myself" by running for and winning a seat on the Leesburg City Council -- says she will direct her energies into "giving back to this community" via a different venue.

"Some friends convinced me I needed to be on the City Council, and I'd like to use that forum to continue to serve the community," she said. "I'm still learning the ropes, but I think this position gives me an opportunity to work on the development of Leesburg and Lee County in a more official capacity.

"I'm going to do what I can to work for the community -- through the City Council and through my church (Leesburg Methodist) -- and I'm going to do the traveling that I always wanted to do."

But Powell knows she'll always be the "Miss Judy" who taught hundreds of Southwest Georgia children how to swim. One such former student is Leesburg Mayor Jim Quinn.

"My mom worked at the Y, so I've been hanging around there since I was 2," Quinn said. "I've always known Miss Powell -- everyone else calls her Miss Judy, but I call her Miss Powell -- and she's meant so much to so many people over the years. I'm really surprised that she actually retired from the Y, because she's always been a part of it.

"I think, though, that she'll continue to be an asset to this community because she wants very much to do the kinds of things that will enhance the community."

As she settled into her first day of "real retirement" Monday, Powell fretted over a schedule "that's keeping me busier than I've ever been." There were things to do, places to go, people to meet, tasks to complete.

Only to a person like Judy Powell -- who gave so much of herself to so many others over decades of service -- does such a schedule constitute retirement.