Zimmerman opened the first Boys Club of Cleveland in 1965. Former members recall the large man known as, ‘Big Z’ welcoming them with his signature grin.
“When you walked through those doors you were accepted for who you were, not because of what you did or what you had done,” said Larry King, a former member and first Boy of the Year.
The first club was located in an old funeral home with sloping floors. Mops, buckets, sponges, and rags were grabbed at the threat of rain. These were not deterrent enough to keep the boys away.
Former members said Zimmerman used their love of sports to spark their interest in the club. He put together basketball, baseball and football teams. Opportunities to play were not affected by social class or race.
King said the Boys Club had the first mixed race baseball and basketball units in Cleveland. Eddie Cartwright recalled coaching the teams with Zimmerman during the highly racially charged 1960s.
“He [Zimmerman] knew there might be problems when we left our area, but Z said he could handle it,” Cartwright said. “I believed he could, as well.”
Big Z acted as founder and executive director of the Boys Club of Cleveland from 1965-69. He had approximately 1,825 days to impact young lives. These included both young and older boys.
Jimmy Ellis was one such older boy.
“Big Z was a great individual,” Ellis said. “We still talk about him ... Neil Zimmerman was a man of his word. He promised us a trip to Florida and we got it.”
Elliss recalled driving down in an old, blue station wagon to sleep on the beach.
“This was more than 46 years ago and we appreciate everything he did for us,” Ellis said.
Family members at the remembrance and ribbon cutting thanked the men for their words. They also assured them Big Z was the same at home as he was at the club.
“A job meant more than a paycheck to my father,” said Cindy Zimmerman. “It was a passion. He could never give too much to the job. He was convinced Cleveland was the place to be.”
Cindy said her father did not have a carefree childhood. It made him happy to see the experiences the boys at the club were able to enjoy.
“He is my dad and I love him, but it is so wonderful to hear how much other people appreciated him,” Cindy said. “On behalf of my mom, sister and the rest of my family, I just want to say, I appreciate learning how much my dad meant to other people.”
McGuire and Ellis presented Cindy, Neil Jr., and Doug Zimmerman with two plaques in honor of their father. Doug and “Butch” [Neil Jr.] offered their thanks to the crowd.
“You guys meant the world to my dad,” Butch said. “If he were here he would say thank you to you guys.”
Butch said the club survived because the older kids took leadership after his father left in ’69. Men like Lonnie Groomes, King, and Cartwright continued their involvement with the club long after Zimmerman left.
Zimmerman left a legacy through his children and his boys at the club. He made sure the boys had a new club house and athletic field before he transferred from Cleveland. To this day they remember the impact Big Z had on their lives.
“He always praised us and eventually I began to believe in myself,” said Groomes in a letter to the Zimmerman family. “He taught us when you get knocked down, you get back up again.”
Charles Sutton, Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland executive director, led the family to the field dedication. Children lined the sidewalk to high-five family members and guests. A ribbon stretched across the opening in the field gate.
To the right of the ribbon stood children holding a large blue sign that read, “Thank You Mr. Zimmerman for teaching kids values and building character!”