Do Your Part, And Help This Man To Finally Unpack

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Everyone who has ever served as a chairman of one of the national trade associations is supposed to know their term is up when they get to celebrate with a ceremonial unpacking of the luggage. The big plan for the weekend? Go nowhere. The only speech they have to give is to their misbehaving dog, the only airplane they need to see is crashed on the beach on "Lost."

Above all, they're supposed to take a breather and allow all that passion and energy that has drained out of them over the previous two years to slowly rebuild.

So that would explain why Dick Ensweiler, whose term as chairman of CUNA expired last month, was in South Beach in Miami last week not taking in the liberal dress code to be found on the Oceanside sands but instead speaking from the dais at the CUNA Lending Council's annual meeting, trying to exhort lenders to understand how their role is critical in responding to an attack upon credit unions that had come just days earlier in Washington.

Enweiler keeps getting added-and allowing himself to be added-to various meeting agendas for reasons that are both of his own making and not of his own doing. First, he's a good speaker (who in one recent presentation also made conference organizers most happy after nailing his time to the minute). Second, there's an unfortunate dearth of people within credit unions who are willing to challenge their brethren and take them to task and remind them that when it comes to that whole "people helping people" thing, they are the people.

Ensweiler's appearance in Miami Beach came just days after House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas held a day-long hearing that basically asked credit unions to prove they continue to deserve their tax-exemption. Many within credit unions will dismiss the threat from the hearings, as Thomas is in his last term as chairman and the rest of Congress isn't the least bit inclined to revoke the exemption, yet it also demonstrated how successful the bank lobby has been in pressing its message that credit unions have abandoned their "historic mission" and are now just banks in disguise. In other words, sneaky profit-mongers just like them.

"Last Thursday (in Congress) was an interesting day to be sure. The IRS was there. The GAO. NCUA were there. They had academic experts. They had Norm D'Amours there!" observed Ensweiler to an audience in which I couldn't help but wonder if many of the younger members who were on hand had any idea who Norm D'Amours is and was. "They had three bank groups and three credit union people. In the end, they said, 'We are not of a mind to tax credit unions right now. But we certainly could. And unless you stick to your social purpose we're going to keep you under our scrutiny."

Ensweiler, who remains in his day job as president of the Texas league, believes credit union lenders are the glue needed to repair a broken leg in the credit union stool. He raised an issue that I'm proud to say The Credit Union Journal has asked on its pages for the past several years-yes, credit unions say they serve the underserved, and yes, they may indeed do just that, but where is the data to support those claims?

Those who were on hand for the tax-exemption hearing or who watched it via a webcast couldn't help but notice credit unions being asked again and again, basically, to "show us the numbers." NCUA Chairman JoAnn Johnson could only say that she would have to get back to Congress on that one.

"What we are not doing is measuring the real statistics on who we serve and in what way," noted Ensweiler. "Chairman Thomsas really hammered on Chairman Johnson. We have resisted CRA, but we do have to come up with some data that shows what we do and how we are serving the community consistently with our original purpose. I think this Lending Council would be a great one for tackling that."

Trying to drive home his point, Ensweiler didn't go to the beach. Rather, he reached across the ocean to Africa and Japan.

First he quoted an African proverb that says, "Until the lion writes his story, the hunt will glorify the hunter. We can't be that lion. We've got to understand that it is our story that needs to be told. The message is ours. We've got to get that story told."

And then to demonstrate the degree to which the human condition crosses continents and centuries, he quoted this Japanese proverb: "A vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare." "If we don't have a plan to make sure we are not taxed, if we become taxed, not-for-profit credit unions, it's going to be a nightmare," Ensweiler told the crowd. "Our charge as credit union leaders is to make sure that members always have a not-for-profit option available to them."

Ensweiler also seemed to want to emphasize that this isn't a task that falls just to CEOs or board members on one of their Hike the Hills.

"You, as lenders, are the ones who can make sure we exercise that social purpose," he said, ironically sounding somewhat Norm D'Amoursian. "You are the ones who can make sure they get the loans they need. You are the ones who can make sure they get the counseling they need."

And if they'll just do that, perhaps Ensweiler can finally unpack.

Frank J. Diekmann is editor of The Credit Union Journal and can be reached at fdiekmann

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