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Onalaska YMCA's new name recognizes Houser contributions

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ONALASKA — Bill Soper acknowledges that “Y North was not a very clever name” when the YMCA in Onalaska picked it up — “temporarily” — a decade ago. But that changed Thursday when the curtain was dropped to unveil its new moniker, the R.W. Houser Family YMCA.

The renaming, which saluted the contributions of time and and money to the Y by Ron and Elisa Houser, came during a luncheon that mirrored the one Tuesday in which the La Crosse facility was renamed the Dahl Family YMCA. Both events also marked the completion of expansions.

The Houser Y site was just a wooded area when Warren and Nancy Quinlisk donated the land 22 years ago, with the only other building in the vicinity being the OmniCenter, recalled Soper, executive director of the La Crosse Area Family YMCA, which is the umbrella for both Ys.

The Quinlisks dreamed of the property becoming a YMCA, and the organization’s officials shared that vision, Soper said.

“Our dream was of becoming a gathering place for the community,” he said, noting that the YMCA has outgrown its image of decades ago as somewhere to swim and work out, now including programs and amenities to improve the health of not only its members but also the community in general.

The dream and the vision moved toward reality 12 years ago, when the campaign began to raise $8 million for a 60,000 square foot building. The Housers were among three families — along with Harry and Carla Dahl and Dave and Barb Skogen — who jump-started the drive with contributions of $1 million apiece, he said.

The new $4 million Onalaska project, which added 40,000 square feet, includes a second gym, an expansion of the wellness center and track, a gymnastics center and an additional fitness center and multipurpose room to the facility at 400 Mason St., was done in tandem with the 25,000-square-foot expansion at the Dahl Y.

The soft-spoken Houser attempted to divert attention from himself during an interview after the ceremony, saying, “I didn’t expect my name to be on the building. I turned it down once. … I’m just an old farm boy trying to make a living.”

Noting that he gets many requests for donations and contributes to many, Houser said the Y is close to his heart because it accommodates people of all ages, from infants to seniors. Dues also help support the Y and its programs, so it does not press donors continuously, he said.

“It’s an amazing success they have had,” Houser said, as those who had attended the luncheon streamed from the new Glendenning Family Gym to the Vinger Gymnastics Center across the hall, where youngsters attending a camp were trying out balance beams, high and low bars and other paraphernalia that have drawn the world’s attention during the Olympics.

Houser was raised on a small family farm near West Salem. After serving in the Navy and working for a car dealer, a finance company and an insurance firm, he started Midwest National Insurance Co. in 1974.

Midwest became a leading provider of health, property and life insurance, as well as administering self-funded health plans. He sold the insurance companies to United Healthcare in 2002 but remained CEO until 2006.

He has since concentrated on managing other business interests, including a swine farm in Burlington, Colo.

The YMCA is held in high regard both locally and nationally, YMCA of the USA resource director Dan Newhouse said during the luncheon.

“YMCAs across the country are looking at what you are accomplishing in La Crosse and Onlaska,” Newhouse said. “You are one of the success stories.”

The success is tied to the resolve of the Housers, the Dahls, the Skogens and other families, as well as more than 380 families, businesses and organizations that contributed $10.6 million to the building campaign, Soper said.

Soper said his job offers the “privilege of recruiting people who change the course of the Y.”

By the way, the Y North label may not have been very creative, but it served the purpose when a quick decision was required, Soper said.

Y and building officials needed some type of a name to put on construction documents, so they opted for Y North as a temporary solution.

But after the Y’s 133-year history here, and after the facilities “brought people together who didn’t even realize they needed the Y” with an explosion of programs that “I’m proud and amazed we offer,” Soper said, it was time for a permanent name.

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