Obituary: Richard Collato was champion of San Diego’s YMCA, mentor

Richard Collato, who pulled the YMCA of San Diego County from near bankruptcy in the 1980s and built it into the second largest YMCA association in the nation, passed away in his Solana Beach home last month. He was 77.

Collato served as president and CEO of the YMCA of San Diego County for 29 years and contributed to dozens of other organizations and businesses in San Diego. Friends and colleagues said Collato was dedicated to serving the community and built strong relationships with people from all walks of life, which helped him rebuild the YMCA when it was struggling.

Friends and family recalled Collato saying his introduction to the YMCA began as “an offer he couldn’t refuse.” He also referred to it as the day he “received a life sentence to the Y.”

Collato was born August 12, 1943, in Brooklyn, New York to Joseph and Leana Collato. He was the middle son of three children. His father, an Italian immigrant, worked for the city’s sanitation department, and his mother, a Sephardic Jew, took care of the family.

As a young boy Collato was arrested for vandalizing subway trains in New York. He was given the choice between going to juvenile hall or participating in the YMCA. He got involved in a YMCA program and has been linked to YMCA organizations ever since.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from St. John’s University and a master’s degree in management from Pepperdine University School of Business. He worked at YMCA associations in New York and California before he was hired as president and CEO of the YMCA of San Diego County in 1981, when it was on the verge of filing for bankruptcy.

Colleague and friend Dick Chapel said that at the time the YMCA couldn’t meet payroll. Collato created capital campaigns and at one point asked board members for no-interest loans that he later convinced them to convert into donations. Ultimately he secured enough donations to expand existing facilities, build new locations and provide more scholarships in low-income areas of the county.

“He was really the kind of guy that could turn lemons into lemonade,” Chapel said.

Chapel served with Collato as executive vice president and chief operating officer of YMCA of San Diego County. He said he considered Collato a mentor and remembers Collato cared about his staff and often honored the work they did by calling them the “top guns” of the YMCA.

“He would say, ‘You know the reason I can focus on my job is because you’re doing a good job with what you’re doing,’ and he would say that to everybody,” Chapel said.

Stephanie Chapel-Yoo knew Collato since she was a little girl because her father worked alongside him, and she later ended up working with Collato as a program director for the YMCA of San Diego County.

Chapel-Yoo said his ability to tackle issues strategically contributed to his success as a leader.

“He hired people that were innovative,” Chapel-Yoo said. “They were entrepreneurial; they cared about people and, I think more importantly, he aligned himself with people that truly believed in the mission of the YMCA.”

Collato retired from the YMCA in 2010.

Collato also participated on boards and consulted with a variety of organizations and companies, including WD-40, Project Design Consultants, Corporate Directors Forum, the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation, the San Diego Foundation, Sempra Energy, Surge Global Energy, Pepperball Technologies, The Bank of San Diego, SDG&E, Southern California Gas Company, Enova, MicroVision Optical, the Jenna Druck Foundation, Kyoto Symposium Organization, Y-Mutual Insurance, YMCA Retirement Fund and Springfield College.

He also taught corporate governance as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego.

His daughter, Brandi Collato, said her dad followed his calling while being a present father who enjoyed spending time with his children. He is survived by his children — Brandi and Chris Collato — and by his wife of 47 years, Cathy Collato, sisters Frances Collato and Joy Collato and by two granddaughters.

Brandi Collato said a range of people, from young people to CEO’s, told the family he had mentored them.

“What’s been striking to us is almost everyone referring to him not as a leader but as a mentor which, you know, it’s a deeply personal, soul-touching impact,” Brandi Collato said.

Nearly 300 people attended a celebration of life ceremony for Collato last week at the Dan McKinney Family YMCA in La Jolla.

The YMCA of San Diego County recently created a leadership award in Collato’s honor for staff members who exhibit humility, mission focus, entrepreneurship and sound business acumen.