Greater Waterbury YMCA preschool

The Staver Fund will help the Greater Waterbury YMCA expand the breadth and quality of its preschool.  [Photo by Jake Koteen Photography]

It wasn’t quite Valentine’s Day, but it might as well have been.

When John “Jack” Staver of Watertown, Connecticut passed away at the age of 80 in January 2018, he left a valentine for the local places he loved.

It was delivered in the form of a $4 million bequest to establish a permanent charitable fund at Connecticut Community Foundation. It was the largest gift by an individual in the 96-year history of the Foundation.

Staver designated the fund to benefit the performing arts in the Greater Waterbury region, the maintenance and improvement of the Town of Watertown’s recreational facilities, and the general operations of  the Greater Waterbury YMCA.

Recipients of Staver’s gift were floored upon hearing the news, since they perceived him as living modestly and “under the radar.”

He checked in at the Greater Waterbury YMCA nearly every evening for more than fifty years carrying an old battered gym bag, recalled employees Paula Labonte and Jim O’Rourke and former employee Angie Matthis. As Staver pumped up and down on the elliptical machine, he always wore the same faded denim shirt and denim running shorts, knee-high white tube socks and an old-style headphone radio with protruding antennas. The staff respectfully called him “Mr. Staver,” and while he kept to himself, he’d sometimes banter at the front desk with the staff well after the Y had closed for the evening.

O’Rourke, chief executive officer of the YMCA, reflected, “He was so humble and so quiet…and just a genuine, good person. For him to think about the  Y in such a special way is so powerful and I’m just so happy we had an impact on him. I would say that we were an extension of his family. We were his family.”

O’Rourke indicated that Staver’s extraordinary gift can help the YMCA expand the breadth and quality of its programs for preschool and school-aged children, and help more families access them regardless of ability to pay.

Staver spent most of his life in Watertown and was a fixture for many years on the public tennis courts or ice skating on the Annex Pond in town, according to Lisa Carew, director of Watertown Parks and Recreation. She recalled Staver tooling around town in an older-model car as Watertown’s first recycling coordinator, and said that Staver also helped older people at the senior center improve their driving skills or prepare their taxes.

“He was very, very reserved, very quiet, low-key and methodical,” she said.

Yet he often stopped by Carew’s office—they had known each other for more than thirty years—to lightheartedly air a persistent grievance: the tennis courts had no park benches. Carew would playfully respond that they didn’t have the money; he would have to buy one himself. 

Carew and Bill Donston, the chair of Watertown’s parks and recreation commission, said that they are committed to fulfill Staver’s legacy through improvements to the town’s recreational facilities. Big ticket items on their lists include adding lights to playing fields, rehabilitating the tennis courts, adding fencing for a dog park, completing sections of local greenways and building a park pavilion.

But—in honor of Staver—new park benches will be installed first, they said.

“To know that you made the kind of impression on somebody that they would think of you and entrust you to make our community better…It’s really amazing and it’s an incredible thing for Watertown. Thanks to Jack, we’re going to be able to ramp up everything we do here,” said Carew. “The positive things that can come from this gift are immeasurable…It’s forever.”

View more photos from the Greater Waterbury YMCA