Decades ago, Michael Cranford remembers leaving his grandmother's house on Oak Street, crossing McCallie Avenue and meeting his friends outside the Boys and Girls Club of Chattanooga. They would lean against the fence, watching the children play ball on the other side, but since Cranford was black he wasn't allowed in.
Years later, Cranford became one of the first black employees at the club and spent decades of his life devoted to the organization. On Tuesday, colleagues and community members celebrated his retirement.
"Over all these years, he has impacted thousands and thousands of kids, and then young adults, and now their children," said Debbie Gray, executive vice president of the nonprofit organization. "He's been CEO for the last 25 years, and during that time, he's impacted kids, but he's also impacted staff. There's a culture here that he has instituted."
Cranford, 68, is retiring from his position as president of the Boys and Girls Club after 50 years at the club. He began his career in 1968 and was named CEO in November 1995.
The club provides a variety of after-school programs for more than 1,400 children annually, any from Chattanooga's poor and minority communities.
"The challenge today is that there are young people who need a quality education in order to change the trajectory of their lives. But they're not getting it," Cranford said. "A lot of these neighborhoods that we serve don't let kids be kids. This place helps an 8-year-old be an 8-year-old."
From 3-8 p.m. every day, the club seeks to provide a safe haven for students, ages 6 to 18.
"It's a home away from home for kids in this community," said Evelyn Woods, the East Chattanooga club's secretary who has worked with Cranford for about seven years.
Asked about his legacy, Cranford said his work has been a privilege.
"I am thankful for the opportunity to serve this community and to help kids overcome obstacles in their life, obstacles they have just because they are born in a certain ZIP code," Cranford said.
His work, which has been honored locally and nationally and expanded to other community organizations, has inspired others in the community to serve on the club's board of directors or get involved in some way.
"He's a legend," said Trae Vaughan, a member of the club's board and a partner at Brock Insurance Agency. "The impact has been on the kids. It's stability. Michael has had that impact on the community we serve, but also has had the trust of the business community, which is integral to fund the club."
Orlando Lightfoot, senior manager for the club, said he has always considered Cranford a coach — a compliment coming from a man who played professional basketball for 13 years.
"I consider him a coach, and the things he has taught me about leadership and service I'll carry with me for a lifetime," Lightfoot said. "He's made a huge impact, and it's our job here to carry on and hold up the standards that he has set here."
Gray said a committee conducted a search for his replacement, who will be announced before the end of the year.
Cranford, who is set to retire at the end of the month, said he doesn't have set plans for retirement but would like to continue to serve others.
Even after he's left his role, Cranford's legacy will continue. Outside, on the grounds of the club near playing courts, is a cornerstone with his name on it.
"Out there, where I was watching kids play and I couldn't come in, turned out to be where I would dedicate 50 years of my life," he said.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.