Tribute to Toronto YMCA leader Henry Labatte

Like many boys his age, Henry Labatte spent his early years playing sports at the YMCA. Later, as an adult, he not only brought the 116-year-old Toronto Y back from the brink of bankruptcy, but also grew the location into the largest in Canada and one of the best Ys in the world.

Born in Toronto to furrier Antoine Labatte and his wife Angelique Horth, an operator at Irwin Toys, Henry Joseph Denis Labatte was the oldest of four children. He and his sisters Lorraine, Marie Doreen and Shirley grew up during the Great Depression in a modest house on Queen Street, according to his son Neil Labatte. A regular at the Broadview YMCA, Henry swam, played baseball and floor hockey and built a lifelong connection to the Y.

As a teenager, he worked odd jobs to assist his family. “In particular,” Neil says, “he wore out his soles as a delivery boy for Aikenhead’s Hardware.” A voracious reader with an interest in politics, Henry left what is now Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute after completing Grade 11 to enter the workforce. “With limited opportunities, he enlisted in the military in 1944 and was honourably discharged in 1945,” says his son Brian Labatte. “He never made it to Europe.”

Henry attended George Williams College in Chicago, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, played on the championship volleyball team and developed an appreciation for jazz. (Williams was the founder of the YMCA, and Henry’s undergraduate program was supported by the Y, Neil says.)

“He often quoted to me Sir George Williams: ‘Education was the great stairway of learning necessary for meritocratic rise,’” Brian says. Like Williams, Henry also “believed that education would provide him with a way out of a life with limited prospects,” says Neil.

While still in college, in 1950, Henry began his YMCA career as an instructor doing outreach with street youth.

“He was a good facilitator and negotiator,” says Brian. After graduating in 1953, Henry learned management support and how to start programs at a YMCA in Field, B.C. He joined Toronto’s Central YMCA as assistant physical director in 1960 and by 1970 had worked his way up to the position of senior executive.

He had his work cut out for him. The Toronto YMCA was 116 years old and virtually bankrupt. Using management information systems, quality measurement, financial ratios, performance evaluation, marketing and volunteer recruitment, Brian says, Henry rebuilt and revitalized the Toronto YMCA, turning it into the largest association in Canada, and among the flagship YMCAs of the world. Under his leadership, the Y planned, financed and built five new program centres across greater Toronto.

“He expanded the Y to be more than physical education,” says Neil, “to be a community, societal and international service and support organization.”

Henry was also a devoted family man. He married Marie Krakora, whom he met at college, in August 1953, and the couple had three children. Henry was a supportive father to Neil, his older brother Brian and their younger sister Mary. “He was always home for breakfast and dinner and made time to take part in our activities,” says Mary Brassington. “Whether it was sports practice, a music lesson, or a special event in our children’s lives, Henry made the time to be with us to help and encourage whenever he could.”

Henry and Marie — a Toronto city councillor for more than 20 years — “worked as a team to leverage their strengths, contacts and experience to attain the most results possible,” Brian says.

This led to the creation of the Henry Labatte Scholarship, which allows full-time YMCA staff to learn from international partners. Following Marie’s death in 2004, Henry created the Seneca College Marie Labatte Scholarship in recognition of volunteerism and leadership.

He retired in 1992 after more than 40 years with the YMCA, but his work was far from over. An advocate for continuing and adult education, he had earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Chicago and graduated from the Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program. He applied his knowledge to create the World Urban Network shortly after retirement.

The organization — which allows large metropolitan YMCAs to share experience and resources to strengthen their community service operations — later sprouted the North American Urban Group and the Canadian Urban Group. “He knew the importance of international knowledge sharing,” Brian says.

In recognition of his leadership, Henry was inducted into the YMCA Hall of Fame at Springfield College in 1994, and in 1998 he was appointed a Companion of the YMCA Fellowship of Honour at Rideau Hall.

As a leader, Henry offered “uncompromising support for equality, opportunity and education,” says Brian. “As a Catholic growing up in Protestant Toronto, there were strong religious beliefs all around him. He wanted to ensure that he was the mentor to help others advance and not experience the obstacles that he did.”

“He strived to ensure that everyone he interacted with knew that opportunities existed,” Mary says, “regardless of their gender, race or beliefs.”

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