Paul Thein has always had a soft spot for the underdog.
That’s because he’s often been an underdog himself.
Growing up in Rochester, Minnesota, with three siblings, he always expected to go into the water-well drilling business like his father.
Instead, he surmounted his blue-collar background to become a champion school athlete, then college coach and administrator.
“I most enjoyed working with community college and international students whose talents hadn’t been refined yet,” Thein said. “You could shape that person.”
But after a whistleblower suit he and others filed in 2006 after he and a colleague caught a faculty member molesting underage students derailed his academic career, he was forced to change direction.
And so at age 41, he began a new career as an administrator for the Young Men’s Christian Association.
Now president and chief executive officer of the Greater Naples YMCA, Thein has reduced the local organization’s debt to $2.5 million from $6.5 million; overseen the rebuilding of the facility after lightning reduced a portion of it to ashes, and arranged for Collier County’s leading nonprofit for pediatric services, the Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida, to operate a 5,400-square-foot children’s clinic in the Y’s renovated space.
While it’s been an uphill struggle since he took the position in March 2013, Thein said he likes the challenge of turning around underdeveloped institutions as much as he does unformed students.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to come here if everything was all polished,” he said.
Before starting with the Naples YMCA, Thein also turned around another troubled Y, the Childers Family YMCA in Waycross, Georgia.
Built 110 years ago, the Waycross Y was “worn out” when Thein first saw it, “like yesterday’s Super Bowl champ.”
But working with the town’s mayor and the chief hospital administrator, Thein saw that it could be turned around by keeping it open 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week, so that it could serve the shift workers for one of the town’s biggest employers, the CSX railroad.
By serving these workers, the Y attracted the charitable support of CSX, which helped to underwrite a number of initiatives, including a complete renovation of the facility and the creation of a wellness center. He also worked with the Mayo Clinic, which had purchased the local hospital, in developing a wellness resource room and educational programs, and won an award from the Alliance of Youth Sports for launching the nation’s best youth golf program.
Such actions helped triple membership and double revenues for the Waycross Y, and earned him a reputation in Y circles as having a talent for turnarounds.
Guy Blanchette, chairman of the board of the Greater Naples YMCA, said Thein was chosen out of 110 candidates for the job.
“His education and sports background stood out,” said Blanchette.
For Thein, 49, his current accomplishments are a vindication of a career that stalled almost a decade ago, when he was a vice president for student services and institutional development, as well as athletic director, at Feather River College in Quincy, California.
Located near scenic Lake Tahoe, the position has seemed ideal to Thein, who had worked his way up from coaching jobs to administrative ones, including a stint as dean of students at Neosho Community College in Chanute, Kansas.
But he ran into opposition at Feather River when he lobbied to make a woman’s basketball coach’s job a tenure-track position, on par with the men’s.
He also ran into trouble in September 2005 when he received reports that an adviser to one of the school’s programs for disadvantaged high school students had taken some underage students to his home. He and another staff member went to the man’s home and found him with the students, who were intoxicated and partially clad. The two reported the incident to then-college college president Susan Carroll.
Thein said that Carroll asked him to “hold off” on reporting the incident because the staff member’s father was an influential faculty member, and called a family friend who was the assistant district for advice.
Thein said he did not hold off, but instead gave a statement to the sheriff’s office the same day and called the federal grant agency that supplied the funding for the program where the staff member served as an adviser. The staff member was arrested, resigned from the school and was found guilty of contributing to the delinquency of minors and driving under the influence.
But Thein said he later was told his employment contract would not be renewed, and was placed on administrative leave through the end of his contract.
In August 2006, Thein, the woman’s basketball coach and the staff member who had reported the incident with the adviser filed suit against Feather River, alleging they had been the victims of retaliation, among other claims. It is still in litigation.
Carroll could not be reached for comment. Kevin Trutna, Feather River’s current president, said the college “cannot comment on personnel matters nor pending litigation.”
Thein said if he is reinstated with back pay, he would go back to the campus for one day “holding his head high.” but would then resign the next day.
“On day two, I’d return to the job I love, the YMCA,” he said.
Thein became interested in working for the YMCA when an attorney who represented him in the whistleblower case suggested that with his credentials and degrees — which include a masters of science in sport management from The United States Sports Academy and a higher education administration degree from Pittsburg State University — he’d be a good fit with the Y.
For Thein it was an inspired idea. “My wife Shanon and I had grown up at the Y,” he recalled. From there, he went to Waycross, and then to Naples.
While Naples is a much more affluent area than Waycross, Thein is determined the Naples Y serve a diverse group of students and a variety of needs.
For instance, wants to expand the medical services available to children who attend the school’s preschool by having occupational, physical and speech therapists, as well as physicians, on campus.
“We didn’t want to just be a baby-sitting service,” he explained.
Thein has other initiatives in the works, too, including a pilot program that will be done in conjunction with the National Football League starting later this fall. The coed program will teach youngsters how to play football safely, without suffering the injuries that cause many to quit the sport early.
And he’s looking at ways to help shift workers by keeping the preschool open in the evening, and partnering with other institutions to improve adult education in wellness in ways that can be replicated at other Y’s .
“We don’t always have to be experts, we can be conduits,” said Thein. “It’s all about collaboration.”