Molly Congdon-Hunsdon looked at her father from across a Glens Falls Area Youth Center table with a gaze every dad would relish.
She hung on his words and her eyes lit up as he spoke about the Youth Center and the thousands of children who have eaten, studied, played and been counseled there for five decades.
Her dad, Youth Center director of 35 years Matt Congdon, was talking about the 50th anniversary party for the center and how nice it will be to see former members, including some traveling back from as far away as Texas and Minnesota to celebrate with their mentor.
Father and daughter are the current and future of the center, from its nomadic and humble beginnings in 1968 as a refuge for area kids whose homes were far from nurturing to its busy, longtime home at 60 Montcalm St.
Molly works at his side these days and is essentially being groomed for the day her dad decides to step aside, although she confidently confessed, “He’s never going to leave here.”
Having grown up in the Youth Center, she’s an obvious choice to succeed him, but the way she speaks of him and looks at him, it’s clear she’s relishing the tutorial period.
“He always knows the right thing to say to them,” she said of her dad’s ability to counsel kids who are dealing with far more than your average kid deals with. “Sometimes I’ll see him with them and I just listen. I’m still learning and trying to be a sponge.”
The pilgrimage back
Word of the June 9 reunion has been spreading across the country via social media, and former Youth Center members like Tim Diamond say they won’t miss it, even if it means coming in from St. Paul, Minnesota.
Diamond, a self-proclaimed troublemaker who at 14 was already well known by local police, was at the center 35 years ago when Congdon took over for a director who went on maternity leave.
Through Congdon’s guidance, school soon became a little more of a priority and the run-ins with the law stopped. He, like all the other members, says Congdon became like a father to him, encouraging him to improve himself and nurturing him with warm dinners and inspiration. And he reiterated what Molly said, that Congdon’s words were always perfect.
“Even in the harshest circumstances, he knew what to say,” he said. “He has a love for the kids and an innate ability to see the good in everyone — even if they can’t see it in themselves.”
Diamond went on to a 22-year Marine Corps career, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and now works for the Veterans Administration in St. Paul as a veterans services officer.
Former Youth Center member Vicki Smith is in Kansas and can’t make the reunion but was eager to talk about Congdon and her “home-away-from-home.”
Now 41, she told of how her family was very poor and Congdon paid the application fees when she was trying to get into college. She reminisced about how Congdon’s brother, Bob, an assistant at the center for 26 years, was the first face she saw when she woke up from her appendectomy a week before high school graduation.
“If it wasn’t for them, I would have been just like my brother — a juvenile delinquent,” she said. “Now I’m an accountant. I have a master’s degree. They made it so I could be a strong person and have more opportunities.”
The success stories just keep coming.
Adam Thung is a graphic designer in New York City who said the center gave him a “foundation that I didn’t really have at home.” Matt was like a father, he said.
Donnie “DJ” Long is a Glens Falls city police officer who initially went to the center so he could eat and recently raised several hundred dollars for the center through a firemen versus police officer basketball game.
Dave Labrun, office manager for a local towing company who also referred to Congdon as a father figure, is raising funds for the center on his own through an upcoming pool tournament in Fort Ann. Matt Congdon said he has never before had former members raising money for the center, and it feels so good.
Matt Nelson is a guidance counselor at Saratoga High School and now a member of the Youth Center board of directors.
He loves to tell how he, a former collegiate offensive lineman, plowed over the tiny Congdon when he was learning to play basketball.
And they were on the same team.
“I was following him down the court and he had the ball and just stopped in front of me. I ran him over. He was like, ‘There’s no way you didn’t see me,’ ” Nelson said, laughing.
Nelson also spoke about Congdon teaching him about sports, sports history and historic figures — and about life. He spoke of Congdon almost as though he was a higher power when it comes to working with kids in need.
“He has a gift for it,” said Nelson, who has two kids of his own now.
Not all Youth Center members have gone on to great things, and that’s what Bob Congdon wanted to make clear last week — and he made it abundantly clear that it troubles him.
He hates it every time he reads about a former member in the newspaper police reports, he said.
“When I see stuff in the paper, I feel like I didn’t do enough,” he said. “It’s nice the people that accomplished something, that we may have touched, but when I see guys in prison for decades, I’m thinking every single one of them was a good kid ... every one had a spark of light in them and just because of their circumstance they end up where they are.”
Matt said he isn’t surprised his brother is troubled by the ones who didn’t succeed. But he knows they helped numerous area kids — or perhaps more importantly helped them to help themselves. It’s important that people realize there’s an individual component to the success of kids who are dealt a bad hand.
“We don’t take the credit,” Matt said. “Because we don’t take the blame either.”
(Very) humble beginnings
Some of the earlier versions of the Youth Center were not very welcoming, Congdon said.
Bob was a junior in high school in 1968 when the center opened in a building long since demolished to make room for the Cronin Hi-Rise apartments on Ridge Street.
“You didn’t go in there,” he said in an ominous tone.
It also had stints upstairs in the former Post-Star building at the corner of Glen and Park streets and farther down on Park and Elm streets near where Pizza Hut is now. When Matt first sat on the couch at the Elm Street location, clouds of dust poured into the air.
“It was terrible. I always thought the people of the community should be ashamed that’s where the Youth Center was,” he said.
He “temporarily” took over at the Elm Street location in 1983 during the director’s maternity leave. He had envisioned himself after college as a gym teacher, a position that would mix his passion for athletics and allow him to help underprivileged kids. He had been an underprivileged kid himself.
He was making $9,000 a year and his budget was $35,000, but when the members petitioned him to stay, he said he knew he had found his place in life, although the future of the center was anything but secure.
“My first year, I didn’t know if there’d be a second,” he said.
The center then moved to Warren Street, a nicer space, but with no kitchen to serve meals and few amenities of any sort.
But the kids kept coming, and he began dreaming of a better place, a place with a kitchen and a gym and a study area.
In 2000, after months of fundraising and a huge donation from a local doctor, James Morrissey, Matt and his castaway kids moved across town into that dream home at the corner of Montcalm and Mission streets.
“This is just the grace of God, really, because a freaking bum like me being able to do this is amazing. But a lot of people helped and that wall is full of people who have helped me,” he said, pointing to plaques on the Youth Center wall.
Bob Congdon said he’s proud of his brother and the passion for local kids that still burns in him 35 years after he started.
“And he got it all done marching to the beat of his own drum. You always knew when he was out to hit you up for big bucks, he’d have his cut-up tank top, basketball shorts, high-top sneakers and his Gilligan hat with his Mickey Mouse pin on it and he’d walk into a room full of suits and get what he wanted, which was amazing,” Bob said.
“He never put a suit on. He’d say, ‘Hey, if they can’t accept me how I am, and this is the image of the kids I’m dealing with, so guess what?’ ”
The party — and the future
Matt and Molly are excited for the June 9 reunion. For Matt, it’ll be a chance to reminisce with members dating back 35 years, and for Molly, a chance to see friends she grew up with in the center.
There will be a huge tent, food trucks, live music and ice cream, and he stressed it’s open to the public. He said he expects about 300 people, some of whom have never seen the Montcalm Street center.
“I’m just excited to see them as a group,” he said, adding that he’s so humbled and thankful so many are planning to come.
And brother Bob, whose amazing painted cartoons adorn every inch of the center’s walls, plans to attend as well, although he jokingly asked, “What day is it?”
But don’t think Matt is just focused on celebrating a milestone. He is constantly improving the place. He just replaced a variety of table games, resurfaced the pool tables and got new carpet.
Now he has plans for outside.
Soon, members will be cultivating a garden on the west side of the building to grow food, then sell it at the farmers market in the city.
He also recently banned cellphones and said the kids still come and are actually enjoying each others’ company a lot more.
And a rule about having to be in school to come to the center still applies.
Although he said he has no immediate plans to retire, he does feel that with Molly ready, and finances in decent shape, that if he did step down, the center wouldn’t skip a beat.
It’s no secret that both Congdon brothers have suffered severe health issues over the years. Bob’s battle with cancer left him with only one ear and a disfigured face, and Matt’s lifelong struggle with diabetes forced the amputation of both legs and led to major open-heart surgery.
But Matt last week said he feels good, and wanted to instead talk about his mother and her current battle with cancer.
He praised her for instilling in him a desire to help others.
“All the stuff that has happened here is because of my mother. She was the one person in my life I didn’t want to disappoint,” he said.
Bob, in a separate conversation — in a rare moment not filled with sarcastic one-liners — praised his brother’s work on behalf of local kids.
He said he should be proud of himself, because when he started, “the place was a dump.”
“He’s like a male Mother Teresa for this area,” he said. “He shined up the youth center and polished a jewel for the community.”