John Casey grew up at a time when many Catholic kids weren’t encouraged to hang out at the YMCA because it started as an evangelical Protestant organization.

The Beverly native wound up becoming the first Roman Catholic to be Secretary General of the World Alliance of YMCAs, a job headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. He traveled to more than 80 countries and reported to an executive committee with members from 32 nations.

He died on Aug. 13 at his North Side home, said friend Jerry Stermer. Mr. Casey, who had cancer, was 78.

As a young man, he watched many barriers being broken. The U.S. had elected John Kennedy its first Catholic president. Kennedy created the Peace Corps, which sent Americans across the globe to educate youth, sanitize water and improve farming. And Pope John XXIII opened up dialogue with other faiths through Vatican II.

John W. Casey became president of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago around 1982. | Chicago Sun-Times photo

Mr. Casey developed into a bridge-builder on the local and global stage. From the early 1980s to 1991, he served as president of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, where he’s credited with stabilizing the organization’s finances through strategic planning and energetic pursuit of grants. From roughly 1992 to 1998, he was secretary general of world YMCAs.

Overseas, he tried to defuse tensions by bringing young people together at ‘Ys’ in the Mideast, Northern Ireland and other trouble spots, said Stermer, former president of Voices for Illinois Children and a chief of staff for Gov. Pat Quinn.

While traveling for the YMCA in the 1990s, Mr. Casey helped bury victims of the Rwandan genocide. “One morning I joined a retrieval group on rafts on the Kagera River near the Rusumo Falls. Our mission was to recover bodies literally sliced in half and caught up in the weeds,” he wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times last year. “The remaining bodies went over the falls and ended up in Lake Victoria, hundreds of miles away. That morning we retrieved 19 corpses.”

“It was one of those things that stayed with him,” said his wife Patricia.

Closer to home, he worked with Mayor Harold Washington to build the South Side YMCA at 63rd and Stony Island. “It was an extraordinary commitment to the inner city,” said Almarie Wagner, a former senior vice president of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago.

And he helped build the New City YMCA at North and Clybourn, bringing together families from posh Lincoln Park homes and Cabrini-Green public housing. “Their kids wound up on swim teams together and T-ball leagues,” said Kent Johnson, executive vice president and chief operating officer at YMCA of the USA. “Cross-cultural understanding was a key part of how he saw the mission of the YMCAs.”

As Mr. Casey told the Sun-Times in 1990, “Part of the reason the Y has been around so long is because we adapt to the needs of those we serve.”

He also hired a diverse YMCA staff, said Wagner, who credits his support with advancing the careers of many women and minorities.

Young John attended Christ the King grade school and Quigley South preparatory seminary. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s in industrial relations at Loyola University.

He met his wife when he joined the Chicago Area Lay Movement, an agency that matched tutors with kids. “He was a guy whose values I thought were just really good,” she said. And “He made me laugh.”

During the late 1970s, he took a sabbatical from the YMCA to work on a state public aid commission. When Wisconsin Steel layoffs hit, he swung into action. “He got fired up — ‘We’re going to do this,’ ” Stermer said. “He just got on the phone and got every single state agency to show up” to counsel the newly unemployed on job retraining, public aid and unemployment benefits.

Some said his worldview was sophisticated but his food tastes remained South Side. He knew the histories of the Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites and Montenegrins, but in Geneva, he missed hot dogs, Kentucky Fried Chicken and White Sox games.

Mr. Casey is also survived by his daughters Sheila Casey, Jeanne Busha and Meg Folker, son Sean, a twin brother, James, and four grandchildren. Services have been held.

In his opinion piece in the Sun-Times last year, he wrote: “We just passed the threshold where over 50 percent of Americans are non-European. Increasing numbers worship other faiths that most of us don’t understand. But they come for the same reasons that our ancestors did. Most will never become ‘like us.’ Maybe most don’t want to become ‘like us.’ Yet they love our country, join our military, work to become good citizens and neighbors.”