Four Strangers In A Thunderstorm: Why It Is Worth Remembering

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It only occurred to me after I had climbed into the back seat of the rental car with three strangers that this might become one of those stories tucked inside the local news section of the paper. Dead man found on side of road. No ID. Nobody reported missing.

The flight had left late that evening out of the San Antonio airport for the short hop to Corpus Christi. The ride was bumpy, but more surprising was that it was a round trip. In the airline tradition of keeping passengers in the dark, we weren't told until wheels were down that thunderstorms had forced us back to San Antonio. Now dumped in a dark, charmless, and empty airport after midnight, a weary gate agent likely getting no overtime told us to retrieve our luggage and informed us we were already booked on the next flight to Corpus-the next day, sometime after 10, and it would involve flying back to Dallas and connecting from there. I couldn't wait. I had appointments first thing in Corpus Christi for the Texas league's annual meeting, and in short order threw my fate in with that of three other stranded strangers, all of us agreeing to rent whatever set of wheels we could scrounge to make the drive that night. An hour later I was in the backseat of a generic sedan nobody else would rent and hurdling across the flat plains of Texas as it was being illuminated by dazzling flashes of lightning from the storm that had turned our flight around. It was as if we were driving through a strobe light carwash.

It would become the single experience I remember most in 20 years of traveling and writing about credit unions. In this issue Credit Union Journal pays tribute to the 100th anniversary of credit unions, beginning on page 13. In addition, on page 8 we have the second installment in our "100 Voices" feature in which readers share their own personal stories summing up their experiences in CUs. Here is mine.

* In those 20 years I have seen and heard much. I've been most fortunate to journey with credit unions to many corners of the globe, from Sydney to Rome, every state in the U.S. and much of Canada. I've seen credit unions struggling on reservations, and had reservations about entering some CUs in struggling areas. I've seen and joked plenty about board members and CEOs who get no closer to an educational conference than the increasingly expensive golf tournament, and attended CDCU meetings with volunteers and managers whose passion was so much larger than their wallets that they couldn't afford a sitter, and they made their children sit at their side during the sessions as they took copious notes on what was being discussed.

Once at a World Council event, I swam in a warm evening breeze on the stone patio of a castle on an island in the Vltava River in Prague as an orchestra played such melodious music that even the setting sun appeared it had decided to listen and linger just above the hills. I've stood in trade show booths in sterile, concrete convention halls and prayed that, if nothing else, God, please don't let my life end here. I've laughed at conference comedians, applauded the courage of the victimized, sat in empty breakout sessions for speakers whose message was truly full, and fought for a place to stand in full sessions where the message was empty. Perhaps above all, I've learned there are only so many ways to prepare chicken.

* At a league meeting, I once sat down to eat in a restaurant so unprepared to serve us, the CU folks were helping in the kitchen. An enigma, it took four hours for the food to arrive and I've never had such a good time. At CUNA's GAC I've heard dozens and dozens of congressmen, and of all of them Sonny Bono made the most sense. I once saw the senior management team at USERS do a choreographed dance routine on stage-and it was darn good.

I've seen many things in credit unions. I've seen some good people made better by a great cause, and some bad people whom a great cause couldn't salvage. I've met humble folks who spoke little of themselves but did wonders, and heard self-promoting blowhards who spoke of themselves as wonders but did little.

I've seen far, far too many SportsCenters late at night in hotel rooms while typing copy and reading e-mails when I should have been in the lobby bar with everyone else, laughing and getting to know them and knowing we wouldn't be together long and the work would always be there. Especially the e-mail.

I've flown through turbulance severe enough to lead me to reintroduce myself to the Almighty, and flown red-eyes across moonlit skies and seen His work on display above and below. I've slept on airport floors and beds that felt like doors, been upgraded and degraded. I've wondered how flight attendants and hotel maids make it through another day, and hoped that maybe they had a credit union where they were treated decently and with some respect.

I've met CEOs who came to work each day for 35 years as if it were their first, and other CEOs who retired the day they were hired. I've been inside the tiny offices of million-dollar credit unions with members elbow-to-elbow, and toured a spacious, multi-million-dollar board room that was sitting empty. I've been discouraged to meet CU leaders whose only exposure to philosophy was a long-forgotten college credit, and greatly encouraged by the passion of Development Educators. And I've especially learned that good food and great company are preferable to great food and good company, every time.

* I once saw senior management of the Texas league chase sheep around a corral in a contest at a ranch outside San Antonio, and learned two things in the process: 1) Those willing to laugh at themselves laugh most, and 2) sheep aren't always sheepish. I've been told I'm nothing but a cheerleader for credit unions. I've been told I'm nothing but a critic of the same. I've been told both on the same day.

I've touched the plaque to the patron saint of U.S. credit unions, Edward Filene, obscured by bushes at a park in Boston, and stood in the offices of the very first credit union and played a small role in helping to recreate its first day of business, 100 years to the day after it opened. I've seen the Speaker of the House cause thousands of credit unionists to roar with approval, and seen the same crowd struck Supremely silent by a court ruling. I stood in the Rose Garden as a president spoke of having just signed a bill to restore the ability of credit unions to add members, and watched CUs feel the thorns of realizing just because you can add everybody doesn't mean you should add everybody. I've watched a credit union become the first financial institution to offer Internet-based transactions, and then watched as CUs were often last in realizing how this newfangled Internet would change so many things-except one.

* I've driven many roads in credit unions. I've made the pilgrimage to the original German bakery where credit unions are said to have risen like yeast, and driven the Raifeisen Road named after the man responsible for it all. I've seen and done all of these things and more, but no conversation, no experience has summed up what credit unions are about more than that late-night road trip and a chance meeting with three strangers.

With that thunderstorm and a couple of hours between us and Corpus Christi, we made the inevitable introductions. When I introduced myself and said what I did for a paycheck, without prompting the other three launched into stories about what credit unions had meant to them in their lives. One man, who had spent a life in the military seemed to measure his life not by his postings, but by the credit unions that served him. Another was heading to the same meeting I was, having taken a job with a CU vendor because his experience with CUs had been so good.

There's been so much talk of branding that credit union conferences sound like rodeos. Your brand isn't your corporate colors, it isn't your tagline, it isn't your logo. Your brand is what comes to mind when someone hears your credit union's name. That's it.

Over the next 100 years credit unions can build a subdivision of Credit Union Houses and crow about all the top 10 lobbying lists they've made. They can build headquarters that turn a banker's head, create catchy TV and marketing campaigns, and applaud themselves after every American Banker consumer poll. Absolutely none of that will matter if the day comes when four more strangers find themselves thrown together and one should happen to mention he works for a credit union and the other three reply with indifference or even grumbling.

That's all that's ever mattered for the past 100 years, and all that will ever matter if credit unions expect to matter themselves.

Frank J. Diekmann is Publisher of The Credit Union Journal. He can be reached at

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