SIDNEY — The Sidney-Shelby County YMCA’s Heritage Club inducted a former associate executive director of the Sidney Y and current CEO and executive director of the Darke County Y into the prestigious Triangle of Honor Tuesday evening at The Oaks Club at Shelby Oaks Golf Course.
Darke County YMCA Executive Director and CEO Sam Casalano became the 20th inductee into the Triangle of Honor and is only the second professional staff member of the Y to have received the honor.
The dinner Tuesday was the ninth induction ceremony, and while the Triangle usually has two or three inductees in a year, this year Casalano alone was given the elite recognition.
Casalano served the Sidney-Shelby County YMCA for almost 23 years. He began as a part-time gymnastics coach and worked his way up to the position of associate executive director before he was eagerly recruited by the Darke County YMCA to fill the top position.
Former Executive Director Dennis Ruble, previously the only staff member to have been inducted into the Triangle, shared the unlikely tale of how Casalano happened to be in the right place at the right time to catch the attention of a 10-year-old girl who would end up changing his life.
Ruble said the gymnastics program was struggling and the coach was leaving, and the search for a replacement was becoming a little bit desperate. Then 10-year-old Austine Luce came barging into a meeting between Ruble and Tom Grueser, then-associate director, to announce she’d found the coach for the gymnastics team.
Luce and her younger brother, Brandon, had been at a local restaurant with their dad, former Municipal Court Judge Don Luce. Brandon was doing cartwheels in the restaurant, and a patron there, Sam Casalano, asked if he was a gymnast.
The rest, as they say, is history. Little Austine conducted her own impromptu interview and was later able to convince the leaders at the Y to follow up on the search for the mysterious “Sam” from the restaurant.
Grueser came back to Ruble with a “story that was almost too good to be true,” Ruble recalled at Tuesday’s dinner. “Sam was in fact a gymnast, a world-class gymnast. He had won a gold medal in the Mediterranean games as a youth against Olympic-level competition. He was in fact the real deal.”
They had no idea.
“When I agreed to help coach the gymnastic team at the Sidney Y for a few months, I had no intention of staying,” Casalano said later, but he was so inspired by the mission of the Y – “to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all” – that it became not just a job but his whole life.
“My journey of more than 27 years has not been about just work, and the success I was blessed with wasn’t because of a certain technique or training,” Casalano said. “It’s about falling in love with what you do and then selling that love.”
Casalano was introduced at the dinner by his former executive directors, Ruble and Ed Thomas, who remains director at the Sidney Y.
Ruble shared Casalano’s accomplishments in developing a gymnastics program that would go on to compete – and win – at the national level.
In all, the Sidney Y kinetics teams under Casalano’s leadership would go on to win 52 district championships, 48 regional championships, 40 national championships, and 140 championships in all.
But beyond the winning teams, Casalano’s program included a commitment to character development, with a dedication to the values of caring, respect, responsibility and honesty.
“Sam always preached to his students that, ‘Winning is never a goal, it is a result,’” Ruble said.
Casalano went on to take on the responsibilities of other departments, including the corporate soccer leader, for which he continues to serve as a staff coordinator for the Sidney Y. He was also integral in the development of the Splash! program, which teaches water safety to hundreds of community children every year at no cost to their families.
Thomas picked up where Ruble left off, sharing the stories and accomplishments of Casalano’s time under his direction.
“I think it’s safe to assume that no one will really ever know or be able to fully appreciate the extent of all that this man has done for our community and for our Y,” Thomas said, “for part of Sam’s very nature is his humility and commitment to putting others before himself.”
Thomas told of Casalano as he moved into the role of associate executive director and took on the herculean task of completely restructuring the membership system. The Sidney Y went on to set new records for member recruitment and retention, and the customer care and service earned a 98 percent satisfaction rating.
Thomas also shared Casalano’s influence in bringing an arts and humanities focus to the Y. Casalano, a celebrated artist in his own right, brought about the introduction of a member art display at the Y, as well as live musicians to perform. He also helped grow the Teen Leaders Program and created a chess club.
In 2006, Thomas created the Carpe Diem award, representing the highest honor a staff member could receive, for the staff member who epitomizes and demonstrates the four core values of the Y. Casalano was the first recipient.
Thomas was visibly moved as he recounted the occasion of the death of Casalano’s mother, and his inability to safely travel to share the time with his family. His Y family came together to arrange a celebration of her life, and Casalano later said of it, “I was able to move from someone stricken with grief and anger to a person determined to celebrate the life and legacy of my mother. The support of the Y and outpouring of love I received really buoyed me through a very difficult time. I learned that a family can be made up of more than people related to you by blood.”
Casalano, with his trademark humility, was careful to give credit by name to several board members, volunteers, staff members and Y supporters who helped him in his achievements, particularly Shirley Sprague, the Sidney Y’s senior program director. Sprague has been honored as Volunteer of the Year three times and also was named Coach of the Year three times.
“She is the epitome of dedication and has been my right hand over the years, and Ed, because I love you so much,” I have not stolen her yet to work at the Darke County Y,” Casalano said.
Sprague was also among those inducted into the Heritage Club Tuesday evening, along with John and Margaret Humphris and Mary Jannides.