The Credit Union Bookends To History Of The Cold War

Few people likely noticed, but two pieces of world history and credit unions intersected last week like bookends of the Cold War.

The first came as a piece of American history faded away last week in a press release that looked like so many other press releases about name changes and new identities and fresh brands.

On Nov. 1 in East Tennessee, K-25 Federal Credit Union will become Enrichment FCU. It's the end of the line for a "name" that wasn't even a name at all, born some 57 years ago in the ashes of World War II in a country that had no sooner defeated the Nazis than a new enemy had begun to emerge: the threat from the reds, the commies, the Soviet Union.

The Russians wanted something the United States had introduced in horrifically effective fashion just five years before the birth of the credit union, the atomic bomb. The two bombs the U.S. dropped on Japan had come from an inventory of two, and in the years afterward the U.S. was scrambling to build a full-scale nuclear program. The Manhattan Project that had led to Little Boy and Fatman was in full production mode, not that anyone knew about it. And that secrecy led directly to the names of at least two credit unions.

Oak Ridge, Tenn., was founded in 1942. It didn't show up on a map until 1949, even though some 75,000 folks lived there-and accepted that their telephones were often tapped, mail was censored, the use of cameras was restricted and their cars could be searched by armed guards at any time. And if you weren't good at small talk then parties could be a chore, as workers were forbidden to talk about their jobs. (It wasn't until after the two bombs dropped that many learned exactly what they had been working on.)

Employees at the Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant, also known as K-25 (a reference to its plot on a map) organized the credit union. Employees at another plant, Y-12, which was the first facility anywhere to separate the uranium 235 isotope from natural uranium in sufficient quantity and quality to produce fissionable material for atomic weapons, also organized a credit union. Today, the $424.9-million Y-12 Credit Union is alive and well. Separately, Oak Ridge National Laboratories would also give way to ORNL FCU, which is also surviving nicely.

Like many credit unions, K-25's former sponsor has joined the Eastern Airlines of the world. The credit union reported that the K-25 plant has since closed and the facility is known as the East Tennessee Technology Park, where clean-up activities are occurring and some space is leased to private industry. Today, the credit union serves eight eastern Tennessee counties.

This newspaper has provided plenty of coverage to credit union name changes, some of which are frankly, baffling, but I've not seen many that have done as good a job with a name that connects to a CU's heritage to the member's future well-being, and which offers a host of marketing opportunities.

"The name 'Enrichment' pays tribute to the K-25 plant's mission of uranium enrichment and 'is a positive word,'" the $260-million credit union said. "It means to make things better or more rewarding, and this is what we do at the credit union in the financial products and services we provide our members."

* Nearly a year ago I was getting a tour of WesCorp's facilities in San Dimas, Calif., when I met with a group of IT staff. They were excited about finally delivering on the promise of Web 2.0 technologies and were making plans to unveil an upgrade to their website. WesCorp has now done so with what it calls "MemberCenter," which it describes as a means to "revolutionize the way credit unions will interact with their corporate." You don't have to be a WesCorp member credit union to be a part of the revolution: just go to www.wescorp.org.

* Finally, we began with the intertwined history of the U.S., the former Soviet Union and credit unions, and we close with it as well. If you weren't in Moscow last week-and Vladmir Putin knows if you were-you missed the first-ever Eastern European Credit Union Congress. It was less than 20 years ago I was writing about efforts to relaunch CUs in the former Soviet bloc countries. I'll never forget meeting once years ago with a perplexed woman who was attempting to charter credit unions in Russia and she was caught up in the kind of twisted logic scenario the old master planners specialized in: legislation enabling credit unions would be passed just as soon as credit unions started operating, and credit unions would begin operating just as soon as there was enabling legislation.

* How much times have changed. Last week more than 217 participants from 12 Eastern European countries, including Russia, met to discuss their futures. In short, they, too, were discussing "enrichment" of a different kind.

* A quick clarification: In a recent column I wrote that NCUA had replaced the management and board of Norlarco Credit Union as part of its conservatorship. Only the board was replaced; the management remains in place.

Frank J. Diekmann is Publisher of the Credit Union Journal and can be reached at fdiekmann<at>cujournal.com.