POTTSTOWN — The Ricketts Center at 658 Beech St. in Pottstown is housed in a 48-year-old red brick building that gracefully follows the contour of a small hill, sloping westward toward the intersection with Adams Street.
Officially named the Pottstown Community Center when it was dedicated Nov. 20, 1971, it replaced the Bethany Center, a building that stood on the same ground for a century before its replacement.
Prior to the building’s dedication, Pottstown Borough Council announced the new building would be called the Pottstown Community Center. Nobody knows when its name was changed to Ricketts Center, but Vince Artist has award certificates he received from the “Ricketts Center” that date back to the 1970s.
The building that housed the Bethany Center was originally a chapel built on property owned by The Hill School, the well-known preparatory school that has been a part of the Pottstown community since its founding in 1851. The driving force behind its construction most likely was Marion Butler Meigs, the wife of John Meigs, The Hill’s Headmaster.
At this point, almost 150 years after its opening, we don’t know exactly what Bethany’s function was at its beginning, but later it was used as a non-denominational chapel for the surrounding community. Old Pottstown newspapers offer occasional glimpses of what happened there. In June of 1895 there was a Children’s Day celebration at which Pottstown youngsters recited Bible verses.
By 1918 a gymnasium was added to the building and it’s clear that Bethany was already in use as a neighborhood center. Hill students were assigned to teach Sunday school classes and wives of Hill School faculty members taught classes such as sewing and worked with neighborhood children. One wife remembered with amusement taking charge of activities for young children.
On Sept. 27, 1937, during the Great Depression, Bethany Chapel officially became a community center. The Mercury reported that J. Theodore Hall, with the impressive title of chairman of the WPA education and recreation center in Pottstown, announced that registration for Pottstown children was planned. The article went on to inform readers that “The opening of the center recently was announced by the chairman of the Character-Building Division of the Council of Social Agencies.”
The year 1937 also saw the beginning of the Girls Scouts in Pottstown as the first group sponsored by The Hill School and taught by wives of Hill faculty opened at the Bethany Chapel.
Bethany also provided recreation for adults and bingo at Bethany seemed to be very popular. A bingo night held in August of 1938 advertised 100 games for 40-cents, with prizes including 10 live chickens.
Four years later, in 1942, The Hill School offered the ownership of Bethany Chapel to the Pottstown Borough, presumably for use as a recreation center. Pottstown had a recreation department at the time, but there was some dithering among Borough Council members about maintenance costs and the fact that ownership brought with it a $500,000 debt on the property.
These obstacles were overcome when the Spicer Corporation, a Pottstown industry, donated the $500,000, and on Feb. 8, 1943, before a large crowd in the Pottstown High School auditorium, a representative of The Hill School officially conveyed the ownership of Bethany Chapel to Pottstown Burgess Lewis P. Sweeney.
Pottstown was now the owner of a two-story wooden building with a small bell tower on the roof and an attached gymnasium. People who came to Bethany remember it having four rooms for activities, that basketball and volleyball were played in gym, and in the basement were pool tables, pingpong tables, and a small shower room.
For many years the center was open during the school year – from September to June — and closed in the summer. Its hours, at least in 1959, were 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9:00 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. on Saturdays. On weeknights children were sent home at 9:30 and then the gym was opened to adults, who mostly came to play basketball.
Though Bethany was a small center its dedicated staff offered a large variety of activities to the community. According to a 1952 Mercury article, the center offered, in addition to basketball and volleyball, “a large number of supervised activities for all age groups,” including but not limited to, “classes in art and handicrafts, dramatics – with productions of plays.” The game room offered a number of board games, such as checkers and chess, and the Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts and Brownies met there. Dances and social parties were also on the schedule.
Its first director was Pottstown native Richard J. Ricketts, known to all as “Mr. Dick.” He was assisted by a staff, most of whom were probably volunteers, that at times included his wife, Margaret, as well as Alice Beasley and Barbara Corum.
Following Ricketts’s death in 1967, Mercury articles show that Walter Weaver was the “center’s supervisor” and Mary Barber was “recreation supervisor.”
The Bethany Center, built in 1871, was showing its age by the 1960s. The passage of time and years of vigorous use had taken a severe toll on the wooden structure. On Sunday, Sept. 19, 1971, a bulldozer clanked onto the lot where the center occupied the top of the hill on the west side of Grant Street. The dozer lowered its blade and unceremoniously reduced the center to rubble.
The Mercury reported that after the bulldozer did its work “neighborhood children wandered over its collapsed wreckage” looking at “bits and pieces of its familiar interior.” The reporter noted that for “many of the adults in the neighborhood” who remembered its “open and familiar atmosphere” its demolition was “like the death of an ailing friend.”
In its place and almost finished was a new recreation center. Designed by Pottstown architect Richard Frantz and built by Pottstown contractor Warren Zern, the new building was dedicated Sat., Nov. 20, 1971. The Bethany Center was gone and so was its name.
Because Pottstown Borough Council wanted to emphasize that the “facility is for the use of the entire borough” it was named the Pottstown Community Center. The council also unanimously voted to name the gymnasium in honor to Richard Ricketts. The inscription on the brass plaque in the lobby of the center reads “Richard J. Ricketts “Mr. Dick” 1912 – 1967, Memorial for his outstanding community youth work.”
For generations the center was a Pottstown institution, funded by Pottstown Borough and run by a staff who knew the community. That changed on Jan. 1, 2009, when the Olivet Boys and Girls Club of Reading took over its operation.
In Aug. 14, 2019, just one day after Pottstown’s Borough Council renewed its lease for four years, Olivet announced that it was immediately discontinuing its programs in Pottstown. Paul Winterbottom, program facilitator and health and wellness coordinator at the Ricketts Center, announced that his fitness boot camp and weight training courses at Ricketts are continuing.
A building may house a recreation center but it is the people that staff it that give it its heart and soul. Over the years the Bethany/Ricketts Center has been blessed to have outstanding coordinators.
Richard James Ricketts, known to all as “Mr. Dick” is the first name on this list. Born in Pottstown July 6, 1912, Ricketts graduated from Pottstown High School in 1931 and attended Clark University in Georgia. During World War II he saw action in Europe as a sergeant with the Combat Engineers.
When the Bethany Center opened in 1942 Ricketts was named its director of recreational programs, a position that he held until his death on Sept. 8, 1967. During that quarter-century he became a deeply respected figure in Pottstown.
People who attended his center as children still remember him well. Large in stature and a strict disciplinarian, he instilled in the center’s children and teenagers respect and courtesy. But they knew that he really cared about them personally, and they wanted to earn his respect.
But “Mr. Dick” was much more than an Army drill sergeant. As one man recently commented, “He was as rough as could be but also as gentle as could be.” He often used his own resources to help the children from poor families who came to the center, but without being obvious about it. Mr. Dick bought sneakers from Carroll “Mush” Bechtel, the owner of Bechtel’s Sporting Goods in Pottstown, which he, in turn, would give to children. If he saw a child wearing shoes that had seen better days, his question was “What size do you wear?” Then he gave the child a pair that would fit.
Ricketts was the father of two sons who were outstanding athletes: Richard James Ricketts Jr. and David Ricketts. The brothers went to Duquesne University, where they starred on the school’s basketball team and helped lead it to an NIT championship in 1955. Richard played professional basketball and baseball and David played professional baseball. David was a member of the 1967 world champion Cardinals team.
Following Ricketts’ death, Rosalious H. “Clapper” White became the father figure and mentor to the children at the center. Born in Pottstown in 1930, he graduated from Pottstown High School in 1947. He served in the Army during the Korean War.
A man of exceptional athletic talent, “Clapper,” as former Mercury sportswriter Rosemarie Ross wrote, “could have been anything. Olympian weight lifter, champion pool player, football star.” But, “He was a man of God and his deep faith grabbed him and pulled him away from pursuing the high pinnacles of sport. He became, instead, the spiritual voice for much of this community.”
Ross’s words are reinforced by the testimony of people who grew up with “Clapper” as their mentor. One man remembered, “If it hadn’t been for Clapper I would probably be in jail. He kept me off the streets.”
Johnny Corson, well-known Pottstown activist, recalled Clapper. “You respected him. You listened to him because you did not want to be kicked out.” Clapper called us “young’uns.” Corson said Clapper would give him money and say, “Young’un, go to the store and buy food.” He used those groceries to make meals for anybody who needed one. Though the center was officially closed on Sundays and holidays, Clapper was there for people who had nowhere else to go.
White never married and devoted his life to helping the people who came to the center. He died suddenly March 11, 1997, and was buried in the Second Baptist Church cemetery in Douglassville. But, as Ross wrote, “His spirit, those who knew him feel, can never be buried and will remain forever in this neighborhood family center.”
Pottstown native Crystal Williams became director of the Ricketts Center in the 1990s. Creative and energetic, she developed many unique programs for the center’s children. In addition to the traditional arts and crafts program she arranged for the Penn State University Cooperative Extension to visit the center and give cooking classes. There was a drill team with a drum line, an African Dance Group that performed in public, and “Jazz under the Stars,” a concert series that featured live music outdoors.
Williams was instrumental in obtaining a grant that brought a mural artist to the center to work with high school students. They spent an entire summer creating a set of murals in the old weight room that depicted scenes from Ricketts and people who were important to the center.
Her tenure at Ricketts ended when the Olivet Boys and Girls Club of Reading took over on Jan. 1, 1999.