The business cards were flying thick and fast, and the gallows humor was at a dull roar.

"Don, what do you put on your business card these days?" asked Peter J. Canning, a former comptroller at Chase Manhattan Bank, inspecting the card of a long-ago colleague.

Don Goldman's eyes lit up to see his old friend, and he proudly extracted a card from his wallet. "There is life after Chase," assured Mr. Goldman, a former product manager who now sells real estate on Long Island.

Welcome to the Chase Alumni Association, 3,000 people who once worked for what is now the largest banking company in the United States. Keeping alive the Chase spirit, they brag that their organization may well be the largest bank alumni group in the country, too.

With mergers and downsizing decimating the bank work force, former officers at Chase and at other large banks - like J.P. Morgan, and Bankers Trust - have formed alumni groups for friendship and career networking.

Many members were "lifers" for whom the nudge of severance came unexpectedly. Whether or not they are still seeking jobs, most say the camaraderie is as important as the contacts.

"When I started, it was, 'You work for Chase, you work for life,' " said Nancy S. Ashen, a 20-year veteran in private banking who used to report to Mr. Canning.

In one of those quirky life twists, it was Ms. Ashen's husband, a human resources director at the New York Stock Exchange, who helped Mr. Canning find his current position as controller of the Stock Exchange Luncheon Club.

"You can't build a network in a month," Mr. Canning said. "By keeping up with Nancy, I got my job." Ms. Ashen is now fiscal officer at charitable organization, the New York Foundation.

Unlike at a college reunion, where the fun lies in boasting of career success, the Chase alumni revel in pointing out who among them is an "independent consultant."

"All of us speak the same kind of language because we've been through the same type of training," said Hans van den Houten, a co-founder of the Chase Alumni Association.

"It's like a fraternity or sorority because you can call someone up and say, 'When were you there? Who was the head of your training class?"'

Mr. van den Houten, a nine-year Chase employee who was a vice president when he left in 1976, subsequently worked for Moody's and for Dun & Bradstreet.

"In between I was a headhunter," he said with a smile. Now he is first vice president at Republic National Bank in New York - where he works with 34 other ex-Chase people.

Chet Brauch, president and co-founder of the association, left Chase in 1988 after a lengthy career. "I actually tried to start (the alumni group) before I left the bank," he said, rolling his eyes. "Which may be why I left the bank."

Mr. Brauch and Mr. van den Houten hatched the idea in 1988 over drinks in London. They compiled names from their address books and those of colleagues, and the list turned into a data base. The first gathering, held that year in a bar on New York's Madison Avenue, drew 60 people.

"Whether we liked the organization or didn't was immaterial to the fact that this was an interesting, intelligent group of people whom we'd like to stay in touch with," Mr. van den Houten said.

The association has members in 43 countries. Some travel considerable distances to the semi-annual cocktail parties in New York (no sour grapes are served); others go to chapter gatherings abroad.

"Most of us have a positive link," Mr. van den Houten said at the Oct. 24 party at the Netherland Club in midtown Manhattan, which drew a record crowd of about 200. "Tonight I walked in and I saw a guy whom I hadn't seen since 1979."

U.S. members pay $25 in annual dues, overseas members $35. Each receives an annual directory and a newsletter published three times a year.

"There's no official connection or affiliation" to Chase Manhattan Corp., said company spokesman John Stefans. "But as I understand it, some of our senior people attend their function from time to time.

"It's a very worthwhile thing, very good for networking, keeping in touch with old friends."

Mr. Brauch said the top Chase brass haven't shown up for years, and there is no communication between the organization and the bank.

Most of the alumni have stayed within the financial services orbit, but Mr. Brauch said the membership includes a dance instructor and the founder of a company that imports and exports Chinese medicines. A few members have even returned to work at Chase.

"Everybody wanted to stay in banking but was forced to look elsewhere," Ms. Ashen said. "I think most people, too, are better off."

Ms. Ashen had some knocks for her old employer, calling Chase an "extremely paternalistic" organization that "started taking away benefits, doubling people up."

Don Goldman, a former colleague of Ms. Ashen's, recalled Chase as "a wonderful bank." Yet he prefers being a Fire Island realtor.

"I left in 1988, and I've now run six marathons and spend time just enjoying life," he said. "Instead of selling products to customers, I now sell houses to individuals."

Since most alumni have mixed feelings, organizers say it helps to have a place to vent them.

"I think everyone has some fond memories, but some people may have negative opinions of the way things changed," Mr. Brauch said.

"Or the way the bank was run," Mr. van den Houten chimed in.

The association encourages everyone to join - even if they are in a huff, and even if they were trimmed from the Chemical side. "Whether they (Chemical alums) will join or not is a question," Mr. Brauch said.

Still, he said, it might serve as a good safety net. "We have tried to set up electronic bulletin boards for job placement, job opportunities and investment opportunities."

A potential merger with the year-old Manufacturers Hanover Alumni Club is also under discussion.

Peter Brinkley, who was a Chase lending officer for 16 years, said he has been continuously impressed by the vitality of the Chase alumni group.

"I think it's unusual that they've been able to put this group together and keep it together," said Mr. Brinkley, who now is a director of a small asset management business in Princeton, N.J.

Mr. Brinkley traveled the 50 miles to the most recent Netherland Club party, and he was not disappointed. One former colleague, David Langsam, swooped in with a hearty handshake.

Mr. Langsam shared the news that he was joining Merrill Lynch, and marveled with Mr. Brinkley at the density of the crowd.

"If the Manny Hanny and Chemical people join, this will end up the size of Yankee Stadium," Mr. Langsam said.

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