Ye Old Menogyn Guides
Reflections the Leadership of Jim Gilbert by Arm Paulson

It’s my honor and privilege to write a beginning statement about Jim Gilbert. He was a long time friend for over 50 years, a colleague on the Minneapolis YMCA professional staff, a fellow Menogyn director and a significant mentor to me. He was a rare and exceptional leader and man. He left a huge imprint at Menogyn, with the people who served on his staffs and on the Minneapolis YMCA.

A Leadership Mentor

Jim was a leadership mentor to countless men and women. He was highly respected by everyone he worked with. Jim was one of my mentors over the years. I first met Jim at a Pat-Polar dance sponsored by the North-side YMCA at the American Legion Hall on north Broadway Avenue. The dance on Friday evenings was created by Waldo Ekstrand, a Northside Y youth director, to prevent fights between the students from Henry (Pats) and North (Polars) high schools after football and basketball games. The competition between the schools was fierce. In the Fall of my sophomore year in high school (1951) my football teammates and I attended our first Pat-Polar dance after a Friday night game.

I walked through the door and into the dance. The place was packed with young people. At the door was a huge, muscular man checking everyone coming through the door. Jim was the supervisor/bouncer of this YMCA sponsored event. He commanded respect. I was fascinated with how he handled all the young people attending. I stopped to watch Jim operate. He kept the drunks and toughs outside and ensured that non high school aged persons didn’t get in. It’s how he did it that fascinated me.

It was a study in the psychology of handling men. He dealt with them gently, respectfully and with humor. He was never confrontational and challenging with them. He redirected them. Those who came to fight or disrupt the dance were channeled into a respectful conversation with Jim. He would eventually put his arm around the most disruptive and convince them to behave. Jim’s size also helped. I don’t think that even the most drunk or toughest of them wanted to tangle with this giant. One knew by looking at Jim’s eyes and confidant demeanor that he knew how to handle himself. He had grown up in a tough area of the inner city of north Minneapolis.

At every subsequent dance, I would always put dancing with the young ladies and visiting with friends “on hold” in order to first talk with Jim. I knew that I had a lot to learn from him about leading and how to get the best out of men. And all the girls loved him because he paid respectful attention to them and exuded quiet and unassuming leadership and the traits of strength, gentleness, kindness, humor, insight and understanding. I learned a lot about the effects of that kind of “presence” with people.

A few years later, I again met Jim when I worked on the summer staff of YMCA Camp Ihduhapi. Jim was just out of the Navy and served as the Assistant Director. Again it was a study on how one works with college aged guys in an all male environment. Jim led with humor and deep insight. Always fair and supportive, his guidance was practical, firm and made sense. As a sign of support and affection for each of us, he’d gently chide us, which everyone loved, call us by our last name as a form of affection and constantly affirm our efforts to be good counselors. He challenged us to do our best and he got the best from us.

I can still hear Jim say to me “Paulson, you sniveling rat” and then complete it with some nonsensical comment. He bantered like this with all the staff guys. So we (the staff) all agreed that we would all respond by saying to him, “Yes sir, your highness, sir”. Then we’d all laugh including Jim. This was just another of many interesting male bonding rites that brought us closer together. Needless to say, all the guys loved and respected him.

Another of Jim’s ploys was to just walk by one or more of us and just say “Keep the faith” and keep walking. It was hilarious because none of us, including Jim, were fundamentalists, just healthy Christians. Jim created fun times for everyone. He kept us loose and productive. I observed his every move in building a staff team and how he dealt with issues, crisis, staff relationships and supervision. He was a role model in Christian manhood and leadership for all of us. It was then that he became my mentor.

Our friendship continued when we both worked as youth program directors for the Minneapolis YMCA. Jim worked at the Northeast Branch YMCA and I worked at the Roosevelt Branch Y in South Minneapolis. Jim was also the director of Menogyn while I directed Kelly Farm Day Camp and a Learn to Swim program during the summers of 1960-62. I visited Jim at Menogyn each summer from 1957 to 1962. I guided canoe trips with friends on the staff at Ihduhapi and then three times with my day camp staffs at the end of each summer. I saw how he functioned as a camp director. It was study in effective leadership and management. Again, there was much to learn from Jim Gilbert.

Jim’s expertise in youth work and his sense of humor won him the respect of all the other professional youth directors working in the Minneapolis YMCAs. A mentor to so many of us, he never was an arrogant “know it all”. He was too smart for that. He purposely sought to develop leaders and did his job with excellence. He always affirmed others, never competed for the limelight and filled our lives with his humor and insights. His quiet strength and affirmations encouraged everyone. And he engaged with everyone.

The Y staff guys loved this humorous “gentle giant”. One of his favorite ploys occurred when he answered the phone. When you announced who you were, as in “Hey Jim this is Arm,” he’d respond, “Oh, it’s only you.” And then silence. Then a deep chuckle. So when he would call me, I’d retort in kind with either “What do you want!” in my most irritated voice or weariest, “Oh no, not you again.” Our friendship was fueled by our affection and respect for each other for over 50 years. I admired his ability to make things happen and his self effacing manner. He led very effectively. He was my mentor.

The Gentle Giant

Jim was known affectionately as the “Gentle Giant” or “Jumbo Jim”. He was an exceptional leader as Menogyn’s executive camp director and in other situations in his life. He had a profound respect for and understanding of people. Men responded to his leadership for many reasons. They responded because they respected him and trusted him. He was non judgmental because he understood human beings so well. Thus men found that they could count on him to bring kindness, caring, understanding, strength, clarity, energy, hope and a concern for people to each relationship and with each person. And they felt that they could confide in and trust him with themselves: their feelings, hopes, joys, problems and fears. Jim knew where other men were coming from because he’d been there himself. He’d just smile.

Jim got inside the lives and thinking of men and young men. He taught, he counseled gently and firmly and he gave direction to the lives of others. He saw the potentials within people and sought to give them opportunities to discover them. He took chances on many young men by trusting that they would eventually develop. He always showed respect for other persons even when correcting them. He could “clank heads” when needing to make a point, but he never demeaned the person. This kind of man was indeed a rare find for most men because he didn’t compete with them. He supported and encouraged them. He was a role model for many and a “man’s man”to men and also to women.

The Gilbert Touch

Jim was immensely intuitive and cared deeply for people by understanding them, guiding their development and nurturing their uniqueness and potential. He respected everyone in that way and people felt it. He worked hard to affirm people and to help them to be successful. He could also be very tough on those who didn’t care to do their best, were self focused or refused to listen. He had a well developed “crap detector.” His intuition was accurate so he was masterful in assessing a person’s character, possibilities and potentials.

Every person he related to experienced the “Gilbert touch”. People trusted his spirituality, values, ability to decide and uncommon strength (physically, emotionally and in character) as his persona touched theirs. He knew himself and led quietly and efficiently. People just liked being around him. When he spoke, people learned that he was worth listening to. His physical touch came as a form of caring. It was never intrusive. When he touched someone physically (On the arm, around the shoulders etc.) he never “took”. (i.e. when you touch, don’t “take”). Men and women liked Jim’s caring touch.

Physically, Jim was the strongest man that I ever met. And I’ve spent countless hours with athletes on teams, on playing fields, in locker rooms and weight rooms. His feats of strength at Menogyn are a legend. And he had a broad back for carrying huge loads of responsibility with great outward calmness. He was unflappable. Jim had friends from all walks of life. He invested in them and was loyal to them. He made them feel special and accepted. I never met a person who didn’t like Jim and how he influenced their lives. Jim cared and everyone knew it.

He Laughed with Life

His strength as a leader resulted in the immense respect people had for him. His sense of humor was loved because it reflected his understanding of life and other people. He laughed with life. He was funny. And people loved his humorous involvements with them. He led with humor and insight. I can still hear the rumble of his deep chuckle and laughter about life’s and people’s absurdities, including himself. He loved and respected people and he filled many lives with the awareness that they were special because he let them know that they were of worth, unique, capable and respected.

He was a leader of men and women. He led wherever he went; yet he never sought leadership positions to feed his ego. His style was to quietly lead and to enable others to lead. Basically shy, Jim was never out front just “yapping” in order to gain a leadership position or to say egocentrically, “Look at me, aren’t I a wonderful leader!” He just quietly led and influenced others. He worked through others. He let others take the credit. He listened respectfully to others and he only spoke when he had something important to say. His leadership was far reaching and effective. In the face of crisis, people could count on him to be calm, to take charge and to get everyone involved in solving the problem. He was unflappable and ever calm.

Groups and organizations grew in effectiveness under his quiet and firm guidance, visionary focus and leadership style.

Jim's Experiences Developed His Leadership Skills

He was a well liked by his classmates as a leader at North High School and a respected football player who was also well liked by his teammates. He didn’t just talk a good game. He led by quietly, and without fanfare, playing exceptionally well and also by enabling others around him to believe in themselves enough to play beyond themselves. He was more than a “good guy”. He was also a fierce competitor but only on the playing field. He did not compete with others to be the center of attention or to win at the expense of someone else or to gain an advantage.

As a kid from the tough area of near north side Minneapolis, he grew up under the influence of the Y. His mentors were Waldo Ekstrand, YMCA director at the Northside Y and Phil Brain the director of Menogyn before Jim. He was a leader in the North high school Hi-Y program. He became an icon at the Northside Y because of his presence and leadership. Later as a scholarship letterman on the University of Minnesota football team, he commanded respect from his teammates and he led by example. Many of his teammates came to him for quiet counsel. Jim attended Menogyn in 1947 as a camper from North High.

In 1949 he served on the guiding staff for Phil Brain. He was also a part of an infamous canoe trip to Ely by a group of guys calling themselves the “Junior Birdmen” Their goal was to set a time record in paddling and portaging 170 miles to Ely from Menogyn. Unbelievably, they did it in the record time of three days by running portages and paddling three paddles with a “dig” on every stroke. The song, “Into the Air Junior Birdmen” was sung at Menogyn campfires for years after their achievement. The trip became part of Menogyn’s folk lore. Their plaque graced the wall of the Lodge for years. Jim was a proud member of the “Junior Birdmen.”

In later years Jim commanded the respect of many groups of men and women. After college he served in the Navy on board the USS Epperson during the Korean War. He was the kind of man who would recruit other sailors to go with him, while in port and on leave, to work with children in orphanages rather than “bar hop.” He was so respected by his ship mates that in later years, he was elected President of the USS Epperson Alumni Association. He had not been an officer. He had been an enlisted man but the power and influence of his leadership on board ship had won the respect of the entire crew.

Executive Leadership in the YMCA

Jim had a 38 year career as an executive with the Minneapolis YMCA. I never met a Y Director who didn’t like or respect him. As the Assistant Director of Camp Ihduhapi in 1955, the entire all male staff respected and loved him. This also occurred when he was the director of Menogyn. It was the same story. Guys loved and respected him for who he was and how he led with such fairness, understanding, kindness, sensitivity, intuitive intelligence and yes, definite firmness. I never knew him to lose control of his emotions when angry. He intentionally led with quiet, positive and strong guidance.

He never yelled or trashed young men even when they needed a strong word; however, there was never any question about who was in charge. Jim gave young men plenty of space to learn by experience and by taking leadership themselves. Jim observed, guided and enabled these young men to grow in ability, confidence and maturity. He “grew” young men. Such was the nature of the man.

Jim gave exceptional leadership to his Menogyn staff and in guiding successful Hi Y programs at the high schools in NE Minneapolis. Later his executive leadership capabilities enabled the new Minnetonka Branch to grow from nothing to a strong community based YMCA. In his next career stop in the late 60’s and early 70’s, Jim served as the executive of the West Central Branch in the multi racial area of the near south side of Minneapolis. It was a hot bed of civil rights activity and racial tension.

As an inner city branch dedicated to young men and families, Jim developed programs that nurtured and brought people together. Because of his leadership in also bringing people together to negotiate and plan during these turbulent times, he won the respect of the entire community and its leadership. He was deeply involved in Civil Rights and was trusted by other black Civil Rights leaders. Adult men deeply respected him while serving on his Boards of Directors at Menogyn, Minnetonka and West Central Branches, the Metropolitan YMCA Program Office and on the Metropolitan Board of Directors when he was the President-CEO of the Minneapolis YMCA. Each of these boards of powerful Minneapolis businessmen made exceptional far reaching decisions in guiding the development of the Minneapolis YMCA because they trusted the vision, competence and leadership of Jim Gilbert.

His secretaries and staffs all loved and respected him because of his leadership, kindness, consideration, humor and commitment to teamwork. They worked hard for this “gentle giant” because they respected his leadership and vision. They were always laughing and, because of Jim, deeply committed to the YMCA.Jim was a man of principles and courage. There are many stories about Jim’s principled leadership. One is when working as the President and CEO of the Minneapolis YMCA, he presided over the building of many new suburban YMCAs and the relocation of the downtown branch YMCA.

When counseled by lawyers to disclaim a religious-Christian relationship in order to gain better cost and tax advantages, Jim retorted, “Absolutely not!! We are a Christian organization and movement and we’ll remain just that!” The lawyers didn’t argue with this strong principled stand of Jim Gilbert. He made it stick even though it cost the Y more money. Jim Gilbert didn’t “sell out”. He never did.

Team of Jim and Wumpy

Jim’s partner and soul mate was his wife, “Wumpy” a nickname she acquired when growing up in Racine Wisconsin. She hated her first name “Gladys” and thus she was always known as “Wumpy”. Jim always could teasingly get her ire up by saying, “Now Gladys”. They met at George Williams College in Chicago when Jim was a graduate student in group work and “Wumpy” was an undergraduate in physical education. She was the love of his life and he was of hers.

They were a great team and had great meaning to the staff and especially to the wives of the trail directors in an all male environment. “Wumpy” was basically shy like Jim, but such a “class act.” “Wumpy” raised their three boys Peter, David and Phillip at Menogyn every summer which was a huge job. It was a time when diapers needed to be washed since pampers had not been invented yet. The diapers of three baby boys? Incredible; however, a gas driven motorized washing machine and propane gas hot water heaters made life more livable for “Wumpy” with three baby boys to care for. The appliances got a real workout each summer and Jim humorously claimed that these appliances “saved their marriage.”

“Wumpy” loved the staff guys and was always a great friend to them. And they were always welcome to DC for evenings of coffee, snacks, conversation and popcorn. She also participated in campfires as often as possible. Guides were honored to baby sit the boys at these times. “Wumpy” was a solid support to Jim in dealing with the unique stresses of running a wilderness camp. And she was beloved and admired by the staff because she was well meaning, kind, unassuming, humorous, athletic and a great lady. She was a beautiful woman both inside and out. Jim and “Wumpy” were a great team and a true model to the staff of  a healthy marriage.