this week with more than 1,500 bankers, spouses, and exhibitors here to celebrate.

Those attending were treated to a giant birthday cake in the exhibit hall -- incoming association president Hjalma E. Johnson cut the ceremonial first piece -- and a brief history of some of the group's accomplishments.

Executive vice president Donald G. Ogilvie pointed out that there was an ABA well before there was a Federal Reserve System or a Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and he reminded everyone of some of the group's successes, including ABA routing numbers.

This year's gathering in the posh Biltmore was probably much different from the first ABA meeting, which was held in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1875. Then, 349 bankers from 31 states and the District of Columbia attended, and no one played golf.

Perhaps the loudest applause during the four-day convention was for astronaut Jerry M. Linenger, who spent five months aboard the Russian space station Mir last year. Mr. Linenger spoke to the bankers about his experience and of the encouragement he received when he was growing up.

"My father didn't tell me that the odds of becoming an astronaut were one million to one, all he told me is that if I set my mind to it, it can be done," he said. "I encourage all of you to go home and tell your child or your grandchild the exact same thing."

With the crowd near tears by the time he finished, Mr. Linenger received a standing ovation.

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With pooling-of-interests merger accounting expected to be forbidden by 2001, every community bank board should at least consider a sale right now, said Jeffrey C. Gerrish, consultant and lawyer in the Memphis firm Gerrish & McCreary. Unless the board discusses the option, and records the discussions in its official minutes, it could be vulnerable to a lawsuit from an irate shareholder later on.

"I expect some investors to go to community banks in a couple of years, when prices have gone down, and say, 'You missed the chance by letting pooling slip away,' " he said. "At that point, you are going to want to have something in the records to prove that you did consider what would happen."

For the record, Mr. Gerrish predicted deal prices will fall after pooling ends but rebound to today's levels within a few years.

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From the exhibit halls to the educational sessions, technology and the Internet were hot themes at the convention. Vincent Brennan, a senior vice president of nFront Inc. in Atlanta, advised all banks to explore going on-line but warned them not to rush the decision.

"Without a well-thought-out strategy, you are just adding overhead," he said.

David Koto, an executive vice president at Brintech Inc. in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., said offering on-line banking is not just an option. "It is no longer a question of if you should go on the Web, it is when," he said. "There are plenty of companies out there that are dead serious about on-line banking. You should be too."

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At last year's convention, then-president R. Scott Jones and executive vice president Ogilvie were so enamored of "Unleashing the Killer App," a red-hot book on e-commerce, that they advised all their lieutenants to give it a read. This year, they hired the author to speak to the association.

Larry Downes, co-author of "Killer App" and a senior lecturer at Northwestern University, warned bankers that their customers are demanding ways to save time and that this includes on-line banking products. Banks have an advantage right now, he said, because they have brand names that people trust. But that advantage may be short-lived.

"If you don't start reorganizing and trying to find your place on-line, you will lose this game and it will be over," Mr. Downes warned.

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After years of declining attendance at its convention, the ABA hopes this year's meeting began a turnaround. The crowd of more than 1,500 was an increase of 25% from the total that went to Orlando for the 1998 confab, according to J. Douglas Adamson, who plans meetings for the trade group.

Still, attendance is down considerably from the convention's heyday. The 1978 gathering in Honolulu drew a record 12,000 people, for example.

Mr. Adamson said the association is pleased with this year's attendance and hopes to see further improvement next year. The 2000 convention will be held Sept. 17 to 20 in the Marriott Park Hotel in Washington.

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