Beginning in early February, the Downtown Denver YMCA will begin to remodel its 110-year-old historic building. And when it celebrates its grand reopening, it’ll be under a new name: the Benjamin F. Stapleton Jr. Downtown Denver YMCA.
No, it’s not that Ben Stapleton. But it is his son.
Benjamin F. Stapleton Jr., son of the former Denver mayor with ties to the Ku Klux Klan, was a Denver attorney and board chair of the YMCA of Metropolitan Denver from 1968-70. Aside from his father, Stapleton Jr. has no known connections to the KKK.
“That was his father,” said Jim Hiner, president and CEO of YMCA of Metro Denver. “I do think he was really an advocate for underserved youth and people in the community.”
Stapleton Jr. was involved in extending YMCA services to more disadvantaged populations, Hiner said, and helped start a couple youth physical education and sports camp programs.
His legacy of commitment to the YMCA in 2016 took the shape of a $1 million donation from the Harmes C. Fishback Foundation Trust, which is currently led by Jenna Stapleton, wife of Colorado State Treasurer and candidate for governor Walker Stapleton.
“The Trust, a foundation run by the Stapleton family, has a history of seeking out partners and programs including the YMCA, that improve lives and help people thrive,” Jenna Stapleton said in a 2016 announcement. “We are proud to support the YMCA and to invest in a cause we care so much about.”
YMCA of Metro Denver is, of course, aware of the Stapleton name’s history and the controversy around it that’s recently intensified.
Gregory Diggs, a leader in the Rename St*pleton group that’s been fighting to take the former mayor’s name off the northeast Denver neighborhood, sees the YMCA’s name change as an interesting point for conversation in the Stapleton name debate. Rename St*pleton has also been trying to get Denver to take the Benjamin F. Stapleton’s name off a city recreation center. The difference between that and the YMCA name, as Diggs sees it, is which Stapleton it honors.
“I think it’s an opportunity for folks to have a thoughtful response,” he said. “It really isn’t about the name itself, it’s about the connection to a certain history and what that symbolizes. … For me, personally, the challenge is specific to the former mayor with the association with the KKK.
“People ask this question all this time: ‘Where does it end?’ I don’t think that’s actually an apt question. I think we take every situation as an individual situation and evaluate and make choices about what we do. I don’t know much about Ben Stapleton Jr., but it sounds like it could be a very appropriate name. Why wouldn’t we support someone who made a significant positive contribution to our community?”
Nita Mosby Tyler, founder of The Equity Project who recently led a public discussion about the Stapleton name, disagrees.
“I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed that it doesn’t appear that the voice of the community is resonating in a way that gets people to think differently about things like naming,” she said. “Whoever it is, it’s still Stapleton, and it still represents a very negative part of our past.
“The average citizen is not going to do Ancestry.com on that name. It’s still Stapleton. It’s still an open wound that we haven’t really solved. We’re in the midst of trying to heal an open wound while creating another one just a few miles away. I don’t think the community will take it well.”
Bill Abney has been using the Downtown Denver YMCA for 34 years and, he said, it doesn’t matter to him which Stapleton they’re honoring.
“The name is there,” he said.
“The terrible organization (KKK) has done terrible things and there’s no reason to continue or whitewash the history. The older folks I talked to at the Y are appalled.”
The Harmes C. Fishback Foundation Trust’s donation makes up less than a third of the $3.5 million the YMCA’s renovation is expected to cost.
“We’re really grateful for the donation and our board decided to rename the building in [Benjamin Stapleton Jr.’s] honor,” Hines said. “We’ve done that before with a large lead gift, where we might name a branch after a person or a family.”
Back in 2016, the YMCA of Metro Denver also received a a $500,000 donation from the Schlessman Family Foundation, and it has since reached about $2 million total thanks to other, smaller gifts. It’s still fundraising toward the $3.5 million goal.
Renovations will begin on Feb. 5 with a vacant space in the basement of the building. That will take the first couple of months, Hines said, and shouldn’t be too disruptive for members, other than the noise. There may be short stretches after that when the Y has to close, but the plan is to stay open as much as possible.
The projected date for the grand reopening as the Benjamin F. Stapleton Jr. Downtown Denver YMCA is October of this year.