For an hour before the scheduled opening, they came, and for an hour afterward they stayed—all to stand in line so they could say hello to Thelma Lovette, who at 96 had retuned to the Hill District for the grand opening of a new state-of-the-art YMCA named in her honor.

The April 18 ribbon-cutting ceremony was an event old friends and young people, who didn’t know her, will say years from now they were there. It was like meeting the queen.

GRAND OPENING—Everyone watches as Aaron Gibson and Thema Lovette cut the ribbon officially opening the Thelma Lovette YMCA. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“Yes, it is. She’s royalty,” said Centre Avenue YMCA Board Chair Tom Burley. “I had tears in my eyes. She’s special because she has touched everyone in this building.”

Burley wasn’t alone in his sentiment. Every politician, state Sen. Jim Ferlo, state Rep. Jake Wheatley, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, echoed Burley.

Fitzgerald said he was lucky enough to spend the previous day with First Lady Michelle Obama and “today I get to spend it with the First Lady of the Hill.”

Ferlo said he was honored to see Lovette again, having worked with her in the Civil Rights struggle during the 1960s and on through the 1980s.

“We need to continue to follow her example and rebuild the Hill with the same energy and synergy that made this wonderful building possible,” he said.

Wheatley and Lavelle both praised the cooperative work and vision that made the building possible, and both credited Lovette for inspiring them to serve the community.

“It’s an honor to be part of your legacy in improving the lives of people in the Hill District,” said Wheatley.

Lavelle said he was blessed to have this rare opportunity to praise a living legend.

“She means the world to me,” he said. “She gave me insight into what it means to be a steward and representative of the community.”

Aaron Gibson, executive director of the Centre Avenue and Thelma Lovette YMCAs, was perhaps the most moved, recalling how former YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh President and CEO Julius Jones had saved him from being lost to a life of crime, and put him on the right path. He said he was honored to run the historic Centre Avenue Y, which allowed women like Lovette to participate in its activities.

“Yesterday was my birthday,” he said. “And having Thelma here today, that’s my present.”

As mistress of ceremonies, KDKA-TV reporter Lynn Hayes Freeland kept things moving briskly, keeping speakers to their time limits for the most part. The ceremony also featured a laying on of hands by Hill clergy members led by Rev. Johnnie Monroe, who blessed and thanked God for the new facility.

“And thank you for Ms. Lovette and for the lives she’s touched,” he said, before turning to her. “And thank you for allowing me to be your pastor for 15 years.”

Then Lovette, with the help of her daughter Thelma Lovette Morris and son-in-law Gregory Morris, rose from her wheel chair to address the standing, cheering crowd.

“I used to dance and stand up straight, now I need someone to help me. But isn’t it nice to have someone to help you?” she said. “I was fortunate enough to come in to the Centre Avenue Y. The Y encouraged me and I want you each to encourage them. A new city is being developed along Centre Avenue and I am excited to see it. It’s a wonderful building and I am blessed to be here. I’m trilled. I love all of you. Thank you all.”

Though he wasn’t part of the ceremony, former YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh President and CEO Eric Mann, who oversaw the capital campaign that raised the $13 million needed to build the Thelma Lovette YMCA, flew in from Jacksonville, Fla. for the opening.

“Oh yeah, I had to see Thelma do this,” he said. “And it’s great to see a dream realized, not just for the Y and Thelma, but for the Hill.”

And the building is a dream. Built into the hillside, the first floor houses a mirrored dance studio, locker room facilities, a sauna, steam room and heated swimming pool. The second floor houses universal weight training, cycling, running and elliptical training equipment, and the gymnasium, which enjoys natural lighting from a large back of windows facing Centre Avenue, and is crowned by a running track patrons access from the third floor.

The third floor also features administrative offices, a community room and kitchen, a childwatch room and an outdoor patio.

“It’s a great facility, much nicer than Centre Avenue,” said founding member Carl Redwood. “Driving the membership is critical. We have to build a health movement in the Hill and membership here is a big part of it.”

Knowing that, Lavelle pledged $10,000 to help with membership scholarships for low-income families. Wheatley and Ferlo each pledged $1,000.

Burley said there are already 250 members.

“We want to make this the best Y it can be to serve the community,” he said. “But for it to be a success community support is critical.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburgh­

Also On New Pittsburgh Courier:
comments – Add Yours