Priscilla (Patsy) Collins reflects on the YMCA

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 12/29/2000
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2921

Priscilla "Patsy" Bullitt Collins (1920-2003), a member of a prominent Seattle family, was a businesswoman and longtime civic leader whose many interests included the Young Men's Christian Association. As a young woman, she was engaged to Larry Norman, son of Charles G. and Ruth Norman, respectively director and staff nurse at the YMCA's Camp Orkila on Orcas Island. She first visited the camp as a guest of the Norman family in the summer of 1941 -- decades before the YMCA welcomed girls as campers. Larry Norman enlisted in the Army Air Forces when the United States entered World War II. He was a bombardier on a B-24 that was shot down during a raid over Germany in 1943. The memorial lodge at Orkila is named in his honor. In this interview, conducted by Cassandra Tate on December 21, 2000, Collins talks about what the YMCA has meant to her and to her community.

The Interview

"The first time I had anything to do with the YMCA was in 1941. I was working at a bank downtown during the summer, after my third year in college, and I became involved with a young man who was also working there. That was Larry Norman. His father and mother ran Camp Orkila. Larry took me up there, and I met his parents and stayed a few days. It was Labor Day weekend, when he had time off from the bank. That was years and years before they had girls at Camp Orkila. I used to say -- facetiously -- that I was the first girl at Orkila.

"I stayed with the family in what was then and still is the infirmary, near the beach. The camp was closed -- it was the end of the season, the boys were gone, and Larry's parents were closing up the camp. We just walked around the beach, went up to the top of Mt. Constitution, hung out with his parents. I'll never forget how beautiful it was.

"Then came Pearl Harbor. Larry joined the Air Force. I visited him at his training camp in Arizona. Larry and I were engaged to be married. We wrote back and forth. He tried to get leaves, but something usually came up. Early in 1943 he had a couple of days in Seattle before he went to Europe. That was the last time I saw him. He was shot down three days before Christmas.

"No one knew what had happened to him after he was reported missing. Was he a prisoner? Was he somewhere in the Dutch underground? Even today, nobody knows. There were 78,000 Americans who just disappeared in World War II, and the government never did anything to find them, because it was taken up with the next war, the Cold War, and Korea. He was shot down on December 22, 1943. The holidays were always a difficult time for me and his parents. But that always happens when someone is killed or disappears around the holiday time.

"I remained very close to his parents. We always wrote to each other and stayed in touch, until they died. Larry was an only child. They looked to me like a foster daughter. And of course I had lost my father when I was a child. Mr. Norman became my dad. I always had a connection to the Y through his parents. [Charles Norman, director of Camp Orkila from 1923 to 1945, was the chief executive of the Seattle Y from 1946 until his retirement in 1953.]

Working For the Y

"In 1944, I was working for the Y in New York. I had a job as one of Tracy Strong's two secretaries [Strong directed the youth program for the Seattle YMCA from 1908 until 1923, when he left to join the World's Alliance of the YMCA, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.] During World War II, Dr. Strong directed the Y's program for the reciprocal treatment of prisoners of war. [The YMCA provided athletic equipment, books, and other supplies to prisoners.] He went back and forth between New York and Geneva, and had a secretary in each place. The New York office had field secretaries that visited POW camps in the United States, where we had thousands and thousands of German and Italian prisoners. It was important to monitor the conditions in the American camps, and deliver help to Germans and Italians, in order to have access to our men in POW camps in Germany and Italy.

"At the end of the war in Europe [May 1945] it was clear that Larry was not coming back. So then I went to work for the American Red Cross and was sent overseas, to the Philippines and Japan, during the American occupation. The Normans said, "Why don't you stay with the YMCA?" I said the Y was in the USO [United Service Organizations, consisting of the YMCA, YWCA, Salvation Army, Jewish Welfare Board, Catholic Community Services, and the Traveler's Aid Association]: it was entertainment, you know, Bob Hope, and dancers and singers. I said I wasn't qualified for that. But the American Red Cross: we were the coffee and donuts people. I worked as an Army service club director.

"After I came back, I married and had children -- three sons -- and soon took them to the swimming pool at the downtown Y. That's where they learned to swim. After I had my babies I joined the Y's physical fitness program to get back into shape.

"My most vivid memories of my experiences with the Y? The beautiful beach at Camp Orkila, and Chapel Rock, and the woods there and all. The first time I saw it was way back in 1941. You never forget your first love, when you were 20.

Character Development

"The Y has done wonderful things for boys and girls. The thing I most appreciate about the Y today is what it does for the development of character and maturity in boys and girls. It does this through camping, sports, swimming, and outdoor life. That'ss the way it reaches youngsters. And it reaches millions, all around the country.

"I can remember that Mrs. Norman, after her son was gone, she used to get letters from soldiers and sailors all over the world saying that when they had to live under tough conditions they always thought back to Camp Orkila and felt it semi-prepared them to face whatever problems they had. This is one sign of what the Y does for young people -- it helps to prepare them for the tough times later that no one can foresee.

"There was always a big emphasis -- it may have been started by Tracy Strong -- that children should be honest and faithful. They did not have a list of things you had to be, like the Boy Scouts, or uniforms, or anything like that, but they had expectations. That you had to be honest, tell the truth, and serve your community. They stressed character development, but it was always in the context of swimming and putting up with mosquitoes and the dark and things like that.

"And of course today Camp Orkila is quite different. My gosh, they have bathrooms! Today, the campers' terrible adjustment in going to camp is doing without cell phones and TV and VCRs.

"The Y's greatest successes? There's camping, of course -- Camp Colman and Camp Terry along with Camp Orkila. And day care of little children. It didn't used to be a necessity but today it is. The Y I think takes care of more children in day care than any other organization in King County. There are so many grown people around town who grew up with the Y, in the Y's pools and gyms and basketball courts. In years to come people will be remembering the computer classes they took at the Y. So many people today look back and remember their counselors. That's a success, their counselors. The Y either chooses them well or trains them well or both.

"Are there any failures, or missed opportunities? I don't know. I can't think of anything they have not taken on that they should. People say they should have taken on girls earlier, but that was just a reflection of society. If anything, they try to do too much.

"I think the most important thing they do is give children the opportunity to live outdoors. The activities children have today are so scripted -- every minute of the day is taken up with soccer or ballet or something. It seems like they don't have enough opportunity to go outside and just play. I remember Charlie Norman saying so many times that children must have fun at camp.

"The Patsy Collins Adventures in Leadership program for teenage girls: that wasn't my idea. Some people around town came up with the idea -- Cindy Sonstelie [former chair of the YMCA board] and others. They said girls of that age need particular help. And then they said they wanted to name the program after me. At the beginning I said, Why me? I don't know anything about girls -- I was a former girl, but I raised boys. But it's been a wonderful program. That first busload of girls, four years ago, when they got off the bus they all looked so sad and abandoned, but within 24 hours they had bonded with each other.

"There will be more and more need to keep children in touch with the outdoors. There will be more and more people living here, and less and less outdoors. There won't be many places you can find to camp on. There will be more and more need for places where children can play outdoors, but people won't have their own outdoors. I'm thankful for the Y camps that are already in existence. It's going to be more and more scarce and more and more important to have.

"I hope that in the future, the Y just keeps doing more of the same."


Sources:

Interview with Priscilla "Patsy" Bullitt Collins (1920-2003), conducted for Historylink by Cassandra Tate on December 21, 2000, Seattle, Washington.
Note: This essay was updated on August 13, 2004.


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