South Mountain YMCA coach heads to career’s finish line

Photo Courtesy of Margaret McHugh
Dave Berry leads a group of preschoolers outside the South Mountain YMCA.

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — A photo captures the essence of Dave Berry’s more than 28-year career at the South Mountain YMCA. The image shows “Coach Dave” riding an oversized balance bicycle, followed by preschoolers like ducklings on wheels.

“Kids take to him like bees to honey, from the littlest ones to the oldest,” said Victoria Robertson, who worked as an assistant coach under Berry when she was homeschooling her son in the early 2000s.

Berry, the longtime South Mountain YMCA’s senior director of Youth and Wellness and director of SOMAPY Camp, will retire in September, having touched the lives of thousands of children and their families in Maplewood and South Orange.

“Coach Dave is a legend around here,” South Mountain YMCA Executive Director James Goodger said. “When you think of kids and sports in Maplewood and South Orange, you think of Coach Dave.”

Berry said he will most miss working with the children.

“I’ve enjoyed being a part of their lives and helping them grow in a positive direction,” the 66-year-old said.

Many children who went through South Mountain YMCA sports programs and SOMAPY camp later worked for Berry, who has followed the successes of YMCA children as they’ve progressed through high school and college sports. Columbia High School inducted Berry into its Athletic Hall of Fame in 2015 for nurturing athletes in their childhood.

“I’m the first coach for a lot of these kids,” he said.

Berry is proud of the growth in youth programs at the South Mountain YMCA. He started indoor tennis and the basketball program, which now includes five travel teams. He introduced the Sports Galore camp 12 years ago and the golf camp seven year later. He restarted the skateboarding clinic in 2015. The Strider Balance Bike training is the newest sports program.

In addition to all his responsibilities at the South Mountain YMCA, Berry is serving his third stint as volunteer director of the New Jersey YMCA Travel Basketball League, which coordinates games and tournaments for 42 teams statewide.

Berry has twice been named Staff Member of the Year for the entire Metropolitan YMCA of the Oranges, an association made up of the South Mountain YMCA and six other branches.

“He has always stayed true to YMCA’s core character values — caring, honesty, respect and responsibility — and shared those guiding principles with thousands of kids, and hundreds of high school- and college-age staff,” Goodger said.

Berry grew up outside Cortland, N.Y., where he learned to swim at the YMCA. After graduating from Binghamton University, Berry worked at health clubs for 15 years, but decided he wanted to work with children. One of his former high school wrestling teammates happened to be president of the Metropolitan YMCA of the Oranges, and soon after contacting him, Berry joined the South Mountain YMCA team in 1990.

Goodger said Berry can come across as reserved and stoic, but he’s not above being silly. In a video to promote the YMCA’s circus-themed 2016 annual campaign, Berry climbed the Y’s fire escape and pretended to jump from the roof into an inflatable pool with only an inch of water.

“He’s willing to step out of his comfort zone, and he does it with a smile,” Goodger said.

Except during the summer camp season, Berry ate a can of chicken noodle soup every day for lunch, so when the South Mountain YMCA was cooking up another funny video, they asked Berry if they could dump a whole garbage can full of soup over his head, Goodger said. Berry agreed and braced for the deluge, but when the countdown ended, he discovered the can was empty. The gag gave Berry a laugh.

Victoria Robertson’s son, Michael, said Berry introduced him to soccer, baseball, basketball and hockey. By age 5, he became Berry’s helper in the preschool sports classes, learning to mimic Berry’s teaching style over the years.

“He taught me to play sports, but he also taught me good sportsmanship,” the 20-year-old said.

Victoria Robertson said Berry cultivated her son’s athleticism, instilled in him a strong work ethic and, through example, taught him to be skilled at teaching.

“He was certainly a major force in my life,” said Michael Robertson, a junior majoring in math at Davidson College in North Carolina. “He’s a household name to anyone involved in sports around here.”

Michael Robertson will spend the fall semester in Vienna, Austria. He was scheduled to go straight there after working at an Outward Bound program at college, but changed plans to attend an Aug. 16 celebration for Berry. “It was without question I would make it to his retirement party,” he said.

As much as he will miss the YMCA, Berry said he is looking forward to retirement. Berry and his longtime partner, Peg Mittricker, plan to spend four weeks traveling New Zealand and Australia in the fall. He also plans to work out daily at the West Essex YMCA fitness center.

Goodger has another idea: “The YMCA has been a massive part of his life, and we’re hoping to get him back as a volunteer!”

Sixty people applied for Berry’s position, and the YMCA has narrowed the field to three finalists. “He’s left the department in a good position with a strong reputation, so his replacement can build on that success,” Goodger said.

The community is invited to a retirement celebration on Thursday, Aug. 16, from 7 to 9:30 p.m., at the First Presbyterian & Trinity Church, 111 Irvington Ave. in South Orange. Admission is charged; register by Aug. 10 at