One Job Function Certain To Go Down With History

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I've seen a lot of unique titles in Credit Union Land. Chief Creative Officer. Chief Closer. Guru of All Things Lending. But here's a title you don't find too often: Historian. To be sure, CUNA employs a small group of people in its Madison offices who are charged with chronicling the movement's moves. But Jeff Dombroff may be the only historian employed by a credit union. Ironically, it's a job title with little history.

A 30-year veteran of the world's largest natural-person credit union, Dombroff had spent the last 17 or so in a more traditional title: VP of branch operations. "It was one of those things where I had been at something for a long time, and was burning out and asked if they could find me something a little smaller and quiet," he said. In August of last year, Navy Federal appointed him as its first historian.

"I've always been someone who gathered facts and kept records," he observed. "But there was really no one in the organization who was keeping track of all the things. Like any large organization, everyone and every department has their own records and, except for that which they are statutorially required to keep, they would throw things away when they saw no more use for it. Of course in the process Navy Federal lost a lot of history. About seven years ago someone went through all the files and threw away all the pictures."

The first challenge to any historian is where to start. In Dombroff's case, history is starting in 1983, the year Navy Federal celebrated its silver anniversary by publishing a book on the first 50 years of the credit union. So Dombroff set off essentially attempting to document Navy Federal from the days disco died through grunge, rap, classic rock reunion tours, and overnight sensations from American Idol.

"My primary mandate is to write Vol. II of the book, and the first thing I did was sit down and read Vol. I," Dombroff explained. " In doing that I discovered there was an index and the first thing I did was update that index with anyone who had been a volunteer official and/or served on a significant committee. There have been 465 people in one capacity or another. I looked at that as the best way to get into the thing."

"After that I got more into the research mode. I had to go and find information and from there things started to come together. I started to read through all the board notes beginning in 1982. I read through all of the minutes and the president's reports since the 1970s, and while reading those began to make some bulleted points. For 1982 to 2003 I have 66 bulleted pages. From those I started to put together a timeline and am taking those to a paragraph. Right now it's up to about 20,000 words."

Anyone who's ever read through any of CUNA's old Bridge Newsletters from the first half of the 20th century is struck by the d?j? vu-all-over-again sense as bankers lambaste the "unlevel playing field" and credit unions fret about their future. Dombroff has seen the same.

'I found, for instance, that the all-Navy field of membership has been a concern of the board since the 1950s," he said. "I was also struck with how history is constantly repeating itself. You see certain cycles occur. The mortgage volume is always a concern-you see the peaks and valleys. Little by little you can see the door opening. You read about things that were big concerns in the 1980s that turned out to be of no concern by 2000. You can see the credit union grow and change and in almost all cases it's for the better."

Dombroff said he found it interesting to read board minutes from 1982 in which expanding the field of membership to serve Guam is discussed. The board finally gave that the OK in 2003. "I also see that the mindset of the credit union in the early 1980s was vastly different from today," he observed.

Specifically, he pointed to Navy Federal's long-standing position that it did not make financial donations to various causes. The reason had nothing to do with keeping the finances ship-shape; rather, it was a byproduct of NFCU's global presence. "People were always coming to us for donations, but why would someone in California care about something here in Virginia? Our answer was always a flat no. That was even true when they came to us for a donation to the Navy Memorial, which is something you think we would jump on. But we had a firm non-involvement policy."

Today, there's been a significant "paradigm shift" at Navy Federal, said Dombroff. The credit union is "very, very involved in community relations in nearly every community we are in."

Dombroff said he is now moving toward the "interview stage," and hopes to talk to NFCU's last two CEOs, Adm. Thomas Hughes and Adm. Joe Scoggin, along with the current CEO, Brian McDonnell. "I've been here 30 years, but there are about 30 other people who have been here even longer than I have," he said. "Once I know all the questions I'd like to get answered I will start the interviews."

The goal, said Dombroff, is to publish his work in a second volume of Navy Federal history. The credit union turns 75 in four years, but Dombroff plans to retire before then. For now, he said he's happy his own history has brought him into this new role.

"I've never done anything like this in my life; it's much more work than you would think," he offered. "It's interesting and it's fun."

Frank J. Diekmann is editor of The Credit Union Journal. He can be contacted at fdiekmann

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