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Reflections on 50 years of credit union service

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Early in life, I heard my folks discussing finances and even heard them reference credit unions. The reference didn’t mean a lot to me at the time, but I got the feeling it was a good thing. Time passed – including high school, college, my first job and military service – before the subject of a credit union reappeared. While serving in the United States Army at Eglin Air Force Base, conversations with coworkers on their credit union experiences refreshed a childhood memory and sparked curiosity. However, my tour of duty came to a close before I could satisfy my curiosity.

In 1969, I secured an engineering position at ORTEC, a small scientific manufacturing firm based in Oak Ridge, Tenn. When I started, a representative from ORTEC Employees Credit Union reached out to me about the benefits of credit union membership. Since I had been curious about credit unions from a young age, I quickly jumped on board and I deposited my small savings. About four months later, when I was just 28, I was approached to fill a supervisory committee vacancy with the enticement of a free meal at the monthly chapter meetings. The rest is history.

And what a history it has been – I have served continuously as a credit union volunteer in some capacity for over 50 years! I spent two years as a committee member before being elected to the ORTEC ECU board of directors. I began as treasurer of the board because my fellow board members convinced me it was the best way to learn. I spent 12 years as a volunteer board member, including a stint as chairman. I had the opportunity to participate in a successful merger with ORNL Federal Credit Union in 1984, after which I was appointed to the supervisory committee, where I oversaw annual audits and member verifications, as well as had oversight of internal and external audit functions.

I spent a total of 14 years on the supervisory committee, as well as a three-year term as an ORNL FCU board member. On six different occasions, I also served on the credit union’s nominating committee. In 1982, I became a Certified Credit Union Executive through the Credit Union National Association. Through the years I also volunteered with the Oak Ridge Chapter of Credit Unions and the Tennessee Credit Union League, even serving as chairman of the league’s board from 1985-1986.

It’s an honor to know that I was part of ORTEC ECU’s significant transformation. I saw us move from using ledger cards to managing a data-processing program. I was there when we had to transition from needing only one part-time employee to operate the credit union to needing a full-time manager to handle daily operations. I even saw us implement our share draft program. I don’t recall what ORTEC ECU’s assets were when I first became involved, but I do remember breaking the $1 million threshold.

Looking back, I can identify eight other credit unions existing in Oak Ridge during the early ‘80s; four of those were significantly larger and offered more services than ORTEC ECU. These larger institutions had overlapping fields of membership, making it difficult for us to compete with the services and products they offered. The challenges of offering competitive services and the manager’s pending retirement solidified the decision to pursue merging with one of the larger credit unions. The directors, and ultimately the members, recognized that the overall membership would gain access to a broader service offering through a merger. Some resistance to losing the ORTEC ECU identity was encountered from the founding members, but the need was understood and the timing was right. ORTEC ECU’s assets were in the $1.5 million range at the time of the merger in 1984.

It has been a privilege to be a participant in this industry as a volunteer and a member of ORNL FCU. The credit union’s assets have grown from $123.5 million in 1984 to over $2.3 billion today. During that same period, membership expanded from 23,600 to over 173,000 and the number of branches has increased from three to 28. Over the course of my volunteer tenure, we went from a single internal auditor to a four-member internal audit department with multiple third-party contracts.

Being a member of the supervisory committee has been an excellent opportunity to introduce individuals to the credit union environment and evaluate their passion for the movement. I believe the committee benefited with periodic changes in leadership; I often stepped aside to provide others the opportunity to join in the experience. I feel in some small way I contributed to six committee members becoming responsible members of the ORNL FCU board.

The supervisory committee has been fortunate to have the continuous strong support of the board and management. Being welcomed at board meetings and included in the planning processes provided committee members a much better understanding of the credit union’s operations and enhanced our ability to carry out our responsibilities.

I’ve seen a change over the years in the caliber of the volunteers as the credit union grew in the ever-changing marketplace. This change didn’t just happen; it was leadership recognizing the need and implementing plans for committed, knowledgeable volunteers.

The challenges ORTEC ECU faced in the early eighties were just a precursor to what the future would hold in regards to member service delivery, regulatory changes, local plant closures and more; the list seems never-ending. Through it all, there has been one underlying theme: our commitment to serving our members. We have never compromised member service in the face of adversity.

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