Last Fall I was speaking to a group of credit unions in Madison, Wis. when I quoted credit union pioneer Edward Filene as urging credit unions to "keep purpose constant." After I had concluded my remarks that day, one gentleman approached me to clarify that it wasn't Filene who made the statement, but Bob Kloss, the former managing director of the Ohio league, who made that reference in a poem he wrote in 1950 called "In the Quiet Night." The poem was written to mark the dedication of Filene House in Madison, and the line, "Keep purpose constant here," appears below a photo of Filene, which is the reason many attribute it to him.
If you're wondering who in the world would know that, then you don't know Chuck Eikel. As Chuck Eikel retires this week, it is notable in that he embodies one of those unique little reminders of what it is that makes credit unions different-credit unions have pioneers and founders and even self-described "missionaries" who in the first-half of the 20th century literally risked their lives to charter these little financial co-ops. Chuck Eikel hails from such a claim- staking family.
The name is well-known to those with even a little knowledge of credit union history. His father, Charles (Charley) F. Eikel, is best known as the long-time president of CUNA Mutual Insurance Society, and as a contemporary of such CU Founding Fathers as Roy Bergengren and Thomas Doig. (Eikel recalls that latter as "a great speaker," a necessary gift for men who lived in an era when opinion was turned by what they had to say in smoke-filled union halls and people's homes, and not by PowerPoint presentations). Prior to the move to Madison, Charley Eikel was a credit union organizer in Louisiana and 14 other states (indicative of the times, he even served as a board member of a bank where credit unions did business). "My earliest memories are of my father spending so much time away from our home in New Orleans on this thing called credit unions," recalled Chuck Eikel. "I remember taking a train when I was five or six years old to Omaha for a big annual meeting."
Around the dinner table there were stories, too. While today's credit unions consider it a hassle to fill out paperwork to expand fields of membership, Chuck Eikel remembers his father being physically threatened and high-tailing it out of more than one town in the Deep South by folks (including the Sheriff) who didn't want to hear of anything with the word "union" in it. In one Mississippi hamlet a group with baseball bats made it clear Charley Eikel would not be helping a black church form a CU.
"What has become lost," said Eikel, "is awareness of the zeal these people had. One thing I think is missing today is the emphasis on organizing credit unions. It's easier now with SEGs, but it can be a mistake not to see that people need a stake. Here in Madison we're trying to organize a credit union for Latinos. They don't feel comfortable, even in other credit unions; they want a stake in something. It's difficult to organize, because there are so many hoops to jump through. I realize it can't be as easy as it was in the thirties, but it seems NCUA makes it so hard."
Eikel said he is retiring with concerns over the direction of some credit unions. "There needs to be more education," he offered. "I have a feeling there are some large credit unions that are more concerned with the bottom line than with explaining to members their reason for being. Credit unions were organized out of a need, a need to be there. I think every credit union, large and small, should go back to their archives and lay out for members why they're there."
The reasons for being remain as relevant today, he believes, as they did when his father was piloting his 1940 Chevy from one small town to the next spreading the gospel of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. "The social good credit unions did, they are still doing," he says. "Membership is growing, so it's obvious they're not obsolete. Credit unions are still serving people others wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole. Navy Federal and the smallest CDCU have much in common."
Eikel, who retired as a staff writer/editor with CUNA Mutual, spent 19 years with the company, helping negotiate six union contracts. He's watched CUNA Mutual from the days his father was at the helm to its growth today to more than 5,000 employees, and believes it has done well in adjusting to the changing demands of members.
When asked what one anecdote or memory of his own career first comes to mind, Eikel immediately pointed to a trip to Beijing, China, and a visit to two credit unions (called Rural Credit Co-ops) that were just taking root. "The idea of cooperative financial institutions seems universal," he said. "People's financial needs are universal. Most of the (Chinese) credit unions' loans were for microenterprise. Members were saving for TVs and washers and dryers."
As Eikel heads out the doors of the big CUNA Mutual campus on Mineral Point Road for a last time, he'll take with him enormous institutional memory that will be impossible to replace. He says he doesn't know who will carry the torch now, but hopes it will be one or more people involved in the Development Educator (DE) program, of which he was a member of the first class in 1982. He wrote one chapter in the book "Real People, Real Stories," of his recollections, but has otherwise not put other memories to paper. He says he may do so via a website, or perhaps someone else will. Someone should. After all, how will credit unions, as Mr. Kloss exhorted, keep purpose constant?
Frank J. Diekmann is editor of The Credit Union Journal. He can be reached at diekmann flinet.com.