By TOM WILLIAMS
If you spent much time in Ocean City, especially in the second half of the 20th century, Don Pileggi, who died recently, probably had an impact on your life.
If you were a surfer – he was one of the founders of the Ocean City Surfing Association. You like to fish – well, Pileggi was active with the Ocean City Fishing Club. He had a role in the Hobie Cat Regatta, establishment of girls basketball programs and the Boy Scouts of America.
As the city’s recreation director for 24 years, he also established new programs in flag football, soccer and street hockey and modernized and expanded sports facilities and playgrounds. He took over recreation leadership in 1963, succeeding George Gardiner, who had gained national acclaim for the city’s recreational opportunities. Pileggi maintained and expanded them, setting an example for Mike Allegretto and Kristie Fenton, who would follow him. It always seemed right to name the Recreation Center at 6th & The Boardwalk after him.
Pileggi was active with the American Legion (he served with the Air Force in the Korean War) and was with both the Exchange Club and Rotary Club. He was one of the founding members of the Ocean City Youth Athletic Association and served as the disaster chairman for the Ocean City Red Cross.
But one for his greatest gifts to the community was the Youth Center.
Located about where the library sits in the current Ocean City High School, the building was transformed in 1946 from a seasonal tennis building (the summer pro actually lived upstairs) into a structure capable of housing teen dances. The renovations were done by the Exchange Club, creating a small dance area upstairs, plus downstairs areas for ping-pong and refreshments. Pileggi was a freshman at OCHS in 1946-47 and was elected treasurer of the youth center.
“George Gardiner was the recreation director then,” Pileggi remembered in a 2013 interview, “and he tried to create a place for us to dance and hang out in the Forest Laundry building on Asbury Avenue. But it didn’t work out too well. My dad was in the Exchange Club and they got things going by fixing up the tennis building.”
The Youth Center was a big success for years but, when Pileggi returned from the Korean War in 1953, he found the place struggling a bit. He asked high school principal George Meyer if he could get involved and received encouragement.
“There were generally four kids from each high school class on the board of directors,” Pileggi said. “Those 16 kids ran the place. The Youth Center was open on Monday and Wednesday nights from 7-9, Fridays and Saturdays from 7-11 and on Saturday afternoon. In later years, we limited Saturday night to grades 9-12. We would also open on the nights of a home basketball game so that the kids had somewhere to go after the game. And we’d invite the visiting fans to come. Many of them did stop in.”
As the Youth Center grew and more kids got interested, Pileggi knew he needed help. And he got it from George Loder. “I had just graduated from high school and loved the Youth Center,” said Loder. “When Don asked me to get involved I was happy to. The Youth Center was a great thing. Parents would call and confirm that their kids were there. And the kids, because they were setting the rules, treated it like it was their place. And it was.”
As membership and interest in the Youth Center grew, the tennis building started to seem too small. So, Pileggi and Loder went to Mayor Ed Bowker and convinced him to invest some money to enlarge it. The city agreed to build a large dance floor on the west end of the building, creating a big enough area that it allowed the ping-pong tables to be moved upstairs and a new pool table to be added on the ground floor. The Youth Center also now boasted its own television, donated by Philco and frequently repaired by technical whiz Mike Randolph.
Area disc jockeys would show up on weekend nights to host the dances, some even broadcasting live on the radio. Singers would come to the Youth Center on a Friday or Saturday night to lip-synch to their latest record and sign some autographs. Once in a while there would be a buzz in the building because a couple of the regulars from American Bandstand had showed up.
With the guidance of Pileggi and Loder, the Youth Center had become the center of the teen social world in Ocean City. Orville Mathis, retired police chief of Somers Point, was selected best dancer in his class, largely because of the steps he demonstrated at the youth center.
The dancing stopped at the Youth Center in 1970. There many more options for the young residents of Ocean City and attendance had dropped.
If the only thing Don Pileggi had done was direct and build the Youth Center for nearly two decades, giving the teenagers of Ocean City a safe place to gather, it would have been enough. But he did so much more. And he did it with kindness and concern.
There was always a smile ready to spread across his face. He was soft-spoken whether celebrating an accomplishment or correcting a problem. He had a kind word for virtually everybody and he was a living example to those who were around him.
Don Pileggi, one of the very special people who made Ocean City the town that it is, was 90.