Professional athlete. Doctor. Firefighter. Rock star.

Ask children what they want to be when they grow up and they will surely rattle off something of the sort, only to change their minds.

If you had asked a young Doug Kohl the same question, though, you would have received a confident response: a YMCA professional.

“I was one of the weird 14-year-olds who thought I knew what I wanted to do with my life, and here I am today,” said Kohl, the current CEO of the Akron Area YMCA, which serves Summit, Medina and Portages counties.

Now, years later, the 63-year-old is closing the door on his 42-year YMCA career.

His official retirement will begin Tuesday.

Beginnings

Kohl’s passion for the organization is a deeply rooted one, sparked the moment he stepped foot in a YMCA near the East Cleveland neighborhood he grew up in.

“My parents dropped me off at the Y when I was 10, and they never picked me back up,” Kohl said.

He nurtured that spark into a flame as he continued volunteering at the Y, connecting with its emphasized values of honesty, care, responsibility and respect. He eventually picked up a position as a youth board member.

“YMCA is an outward expression of my faith, which plays a big part in my life,” Kohl said.

By the time he was 18, his path was set in stone as he packed up for Chicago to attend George Williams College, a school affiliated with the YMCA, to pursue his degree in physical education.

“My goal was to be a CEO before I turned 40,” Kohl said.

Kohl’s YMCA-drenched path led him to Honolulu, Chicago and Indianapolis, where he took on various leadership roles. Kohl was 38 when that road took a turn toward Akron in 1991, where he was offered the CEO position just two years shy of his goal.

Making improvements

Though he had achieved his dream, the road ahead was still bumpy. The tall, modern buildings and diverse integrated communities in Chicago YMCAs were a stark comparison to the older, ragged YMCA buildings Akron had to offer.

“We had a big job to do, but this Y hadn’t lost its social service heart,” Kohl said. “You can’t have a first-class team in a second-class facility.”

He went to work right away, planning for ways to improve facilities and attract not only a larger demographic, but a more diverse one. He began first with renovations at Camp Y-Noah in 1998, an outdoor summer camp for kids that is still running today. A year later, he initiated a renovation of the Riverfront YMCA in Cuyahoga Falls, replacing the house it was run from with a large accommodating facility and establishing a partnership with local public schools.

Initiating growth

The initial school partnership set off a chain reaction, earning Kohl the title of a “serial collaborator.” He formed ties with likely partners all over Summit, Portage and Medina counties, including public schools, cities and Summa Health Care.

Kohl said his catalyst to success is the concept of collaboration and partnership.

Sealing relationships wasn’t Kohl’s only focus during his time at the Y. Since coming to Akron, he has initiated the building of four new YMCAs in Green, Barberton, University Park and Wadsworth, giving each its own theme that reflects the area it’s in.

“Every time we build, we try to connect with the community,” Kohl said.

Kohl’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Since beginning in 1991, the Akron Area YMCA has gone from serving 3,000 members to serving 78,000 members and program participants.

“We’ve been blessed to have him in the organization,” said Larry Griffin, a former longtime employee at the Akron YMCA. “He’s been an excellent role model to myself and other Y leaders, and he never did it at his family’s expense.”

After building an extensive list of accomplishments, Kohl has decided it’s his time to take a step back and let fresh ideas through the organization. Jill Kolesar, the current president and COO of the Akron Area Y, will take his place as CEO.

“[Doug] took the Y from such a deficit to a place where we’ve grown and seen success,” Kolesar said. “He has led with such integrity.”

Kolesar plans to continue Kohl’s collaborative philosophy using her own methods of leadership.Kohl, on the other hand, will remain active within the Akron community.

“I’m excited about whatever’s next, whatever that looks like,” he said.

Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or tcottom@thebeaconjournal.com.