Late CYO director Joe Charnley was ‘perfect’ for his position, led for 20 years

Former Catholic Youth Organization director Joe Charnley hands out awards at the CYO cross-country championship meet held at Cass-Benton Park in Northville. Cross-country was one of the sports that was added to the CYO offerings under Charnley’s watch, and the sport flourished almost immediately. (Photo by Wright Wilson | Special to The Detroit Catholic)

Catholic League legend, innovator died May 5 after two-year battle with brain cancer; remembered as ‘just a good man’

DETROIT — Joe Charnley, a 20-year director of the Catholic Youth Organization for Greater Detroit, passed away May 5 following a two-year battle with brain cancer. 

Those who worked with Charnley say his genuine love of youth sports and the Catholic faith covered the entire region.

“Athletics and sports were in his blood,” said Sandy Werth, Charnley’s former assistant. “For want of a better word, Joe was just one of those guys. He was my mentor coming in, I looked up to him and respected him. He was always about Catholic values; he was always about his family. When you met him, you really treasured your time together.”

Charnley, 69, oversaw the CYO from 1999 until 2017. Prior to that, he was a veteran Catholic High School League basketball coach, and a 1968 graduate of St. Gregory who earned All-Catholic honors in baseball and basketball, and All-State honors in basketball. He was inducted into the Catholic High School League’s Hall of Fame in 1997, and was awarded as its “Person of the Year” in 2010. He also sat on the CHSL Hall of Fame selection committee. 

In his coaching career, Charnley won more than 300 games, 15 district titles and three regional titles. The Detroit News named Charnley as its Coach of the Year in 1992.

After graduating from the former Shaw College of Detroit in 1972, Charnley began coaching basketball at Catholic Central High School two years later. He was an assistant on the 1976 Class A state championship team, coached by Bernie Holowicki. Charnley’s other coaching stops included Riverview Gabriel Richard, Redford St. Agatha (1979-84), Detroit Benedictine (1984-87) and Dearborn Divine Child (1987-2000).

Joe Charnley, who guided the Catholic Youth Organization for 20 years, was called home to God on May 5, after battling brain cancer for two years. (Photo courtesy of the Catholic High School League)

He accepted the CYO’s top job during his final season at Divine Child, succeeding Kim Linenger. Catholic High School League Director Vic Michaels said Charnley was the right man for the role.

“In the position of CYO director — just like the Catholic League director — most people you talk to aren’t happy,” Michaels said. “They aren’t calling to say that you’re doing a great job. People think things should change. Joe handled that so well; he was perfect for that job.”

Both Michaels and Werth agreed the key was Charnley’s patient demeanor.

“Joe was a great fit because of the type of person he was,” Michaels said. “He was able to handle people’s concerns. They felt like they were being heard, and even if they didn’t get their way, they left knowing their ideas were considered.”

“He could tell you something negative, but it sounded like it might have been positive,” Werth said. “He always wanted to help people; he was always there to listen and see both sides of the issue. That’s where he got his respect.”

The CYO is an umbrella youth sports organization for nearly 100 Catholic parishes and grade schools in Metro Detroit. The CYO serves thousands of athletes and hundreds of teams, and Michaels said Charnley and his assistant, Sandy Werth, were able to administer everything seamlessly.

“A lot of people would say Joe would be remembered for bowling or lacrosse or some of the CYO sports he started, but the reality is, everyone remembers Joe as just a good man,” Michaels said. “He was fair, very religious — just a good man.”

The son of the late Joe and the late Margaret Charnley, Joe had seven sisters and three brothers. Joe and his wife, Kathy, were members of St. Kenneth Parish in Plymouth. They are the proud parents of Joe and Jen, and the proud grandparents of Madeline, Kassidy, Ryan and Issabella.

Funeral arrangements were pending as of May 8.