By Andreas Yilma, Staff Writer
NAUGATUCK — Working at the Naugatuck YMCA for nearly half of a century wasn’t about the money for Robert Litke, it was a love of helping people that fueled him.
“It’s not making about making money here,” said Litke about what he will remember most about his time at the Y. “It’s about trying to improve people’s lives. … The point is to get better as people.”
Litke, 63, retired Oct. 9 after 44 years as a custodian at the YMCA.
Naugatuck YMCA CEO Mark LaFortune and Director of Operations Sherri Beck said Litke was much more than a custodian. They compared him to a bartender or therapist because he’s always willing to listen to people’s problems.
“When you work here, you never know what’s going to happen, and almost all of it is good, but you never know what story you’re going to hear from a member or what they’ve gone through,” Litke said. “A lot of them have confided in me in their lives, that’s one thing I’ve always loved, the interaction with the customers that come here, the stories of their lives and their ups and downs. It’s just like being in social club.”
Litke, who was born and raised in the borough, started going to the YMCA when he was about 11 years old and played basketball as a child in the Y’s Little Pal league.
In 1976, he started working at the YMCA under a state-sponsored program. The YMCA put him on the payroll the next year.
“It had a lot of sports, a lot of good people,” Litke said on why he started working at the Y.
Litke, who played his share of racquetball and volleyball in his day, said he enjoyed the comradery of the sports leagues hosted at the YMCA.
Over the years, Litke has seen four leadership changes at the Y, most recent being LaFortune, who took over as CEO last October.
LaFortune said Litke’s experience was a big help when he took the reins of the nonprofit.
“I mean a wealth of knowledge. Bob knows every little nook and cranny of the facility,” LaFortune said. “Bob has already saved us a couple different times since my start with finding things and giving us a heads up before things get worse.”
Litke has also seen thousands of children grow up at the YMCA. Many of them still remember and recognize him if they cross paths walking down the street.
“I like the young kids, seeing them grow up,” Litke said. “They say, ‘You remember me? You kicked me out of the gym.’ There’s a bunch that come up with that story.”
Beck said Litke was there for her children when they went to the YMCA.
“I trusted the Y with my kids when I dropped them off at the dance, and I would see Bob out there locking the doors at the end of the night or opening the doors in the beginning of the night, and I had trust,” she said. “That’s huge when you trust somebody and you’re raising a family.”
Although he is retired, Litke plans to remain involved to give back and told LaFortune to let him know if the Y needs anything.
“He still wants to be involved. He still wants to help out. He still wants to do all sorts of things around here,” LaFortune said. “So, it just speaks to his character.”