LINCOLN, Neb. -- When Alice M. Dittman's husband died 19 years ago, she suddenly became the provider for three teenage children.
"I set out to try and maintain a standard of living for myself and my kids that they would have had if their father had still been alive," she says.
So, Mrs. Dittman, a banker's daughter with two business degrees and plenty of banking experience herself, went back to work full time for her father's Cornhusker Bank - as president and chief executive.
Since then Mrs. Dittman - now a white-haired, 63-year-old grandmother of two - has made a name for herself in Lincoln.
She was the first woman to head the Nebraska Bankers Association, in 1993-94, and the first to crack such all-male preserves as the board of the Country Club of Lincoln.
"Alice is an absolutely tremendous role model for women," said James A. Mastera, Cornhusker's executive vice president. "But more than that, Alice is a tremendous role model for both men and women, I don't think she's striving to be a pioneer. She's striving to succeed, and as a result of that, these things occur."
Earlier this year. her $109 million-asset bank became the first in Nebraska to do check imaging. It also was the first in this city of 200,000 to have a minority board member, in 1991.
It became the first Lincoln bank to offer 24-hour phone access to accounts three years ago, when it introduced "Call the Kernel." The service averages 272 calls a day.
"The others got in line pretty quickly after that," Mrs. Dittman said. "They just couldn't take the competition."
Mrs. Dittman's banking strategy is to grow Cornhusker 10% or more per year and be in the top 25% nationally with return on assets. Its ratio was at 1.61% at yearend 1993.
"This is the first six months in 19 years that I've been president that we have shown no growth," said Mrs. Dittman, who is now chairman as well. The problem for her own and other area banks might be the popularity of alternative investments amid recent low interest rates; she said.
Looking ahead, she'd like to a d a Cornhusker branch on the city's southwest side to the bank's five current locations.
But she's not too interested in acquiring community banks in other areas, saying: "I have not been very aggressive on that simply because I have felt rather than to buy an $8 [million] or $9 million bank, why not just grow another $8 [million] or $9 million and not have to pay a premium?" And Mrs. Dittman, who plays tennis each week, golfs and was certified in scuba diving last November, has no plans to slow down herself just yet.
An avid traveler who hit six continents in 1992, Ms. Dittman said she'll maintain her current positions for a couple years and remain on the bank's board until age 70. "I think you can stay too long," she said. "When you start phasing down, you're no longer as effective."
However, Mrs. Dittman, whose family continues to control the bank's ownership, and whose son John became a vice president this summer, doesn't intend to sell.
"I think having John come back makes that statement," she said. "We've put together too good a staff here to have that destroyed."
Her father, George A. Frampton, bought the bank's predecessor, Farmers State Bank, Davey, Neb., in 1948.
Mrs. Dittman, who holds a bachelor's degree in business administration and a master's in finance and management from the University of Nebraska, worked in Davey as cashier from 1953 to 1959.
In 1960, Mr. Frampton moved the bank 12 miles south to Lincoln and changed its name.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Dittman and her husband, Marcus, worked at a start-up, Central Bank in Central City, Neb., from 1959 to 1964; and in 1965 they helped set up another de novo, First National Bank, Richmond, Mo.
During the next 10 years, while her husband served as president of the Missouri bank, Mrs. Dittman mainly raised their three children. She also worked part time for Cornhusker Bank and served on its board.
After her husband died, she returned to Lincoln and became Cornhusker's president and chief executive, titles her father relinquished to become chairman.
"When I came back to Lincoln in 1975, a lot of people didn't know me," she said.
Thus, she began to lay the groundwork for acceptance among her male peers.
"I'd go to a meeting and there may be a hundred people there, three or four of which were women," Mrs. Dittman said. "The easy thing would have been to go and visit with the three or four women. I didn't let myself do that."
No one has outright opposed her in any of her endeavors because she is a woman. "I never get negative feedback," she said. "You don't. It's just being ignored that's probably the most tangible way that women are kept 'in their place.'"
She also didn't let herself be rendered extinct in 1981, when a San Francisco Chronicle columnist wrote during an American Bankers Association convention that since there would be no need for small banks under deregulation. community bankers were unlikely to be back when the conference returned to San Francisco five years later. He cited Mrs. Dittman in particular, probably because she was on the ABA board.
But by 1986, Cornhusker had doubled in size. and Ms. Dittman let the columnist know her bank was alive and well and that she was headed back west. This time, the column was headlined, "Alice M. Dittman Makes It Back to S.F. Again."
Mrs. Dittman "usually has an opinion about a lot of things and is not afraid to express it," said James A. Hansen, director of Nebraska's Department of Banking and Finance. "She's full of new ideas and thoughtful perspective."
Some of her pet projects around town have included advising Lincoln's new Small Business Resource Center and soliciting funds to more an old bank building to a turn-of-the-century "Main Street" at Nebraska's fairgrounds. She also helped to develop a new banking exhibit at the local children's museum.
What would her husband have thought of all her accomplishments? "He would have done all these things too if he would have been here," she said. "I'm sure he'd be very pleased."