Down here at the bottom end of the pecking order, it’s hard for me to say whether the American banking system is solvent or not. I’m encouraged that my dog still gets a free biscuit from the drive-thru teller, and that said teller is always upbeat and chirpy, no matter that the closed-circuit television via which we converse makes me feel like a high security death row inmate consulting with his state-appointed attorney.
Now and again someone from the bank calls to thank me for being a valued customer. Most recently it was Jason. Addressing me by my first name, Jason asked if I’d be interested in taking out a home equity loan.
“But why?” I asked.
“To pay off all those pesky credit card balances.”
“But I don’t have any pesky credit card balances.”
“Then so you would have funds on hand—in case of an emergency.”
“That’s why we have a savings account.”
“Savings account?” I could hear papers rustling. Jason was reviewing his talking points, evidently unfamiliar with the term. Young people named Jason usually are. But for geezers like me, opening a savings account was an obligatory rite of passage. As a boy I was taught that you first put money IN the bank and then LATER you took it OUT. Exactly the opposite of how it works nowadays.
I remember the occasion as clearly as if it happened yesterday. It was the first time I’d ever set foot inside a bank, there being no such thing as drive-thru windows in those days. My meager deposit was accepted with great fanfare and solemnity befitting the occasion of a young Scotsman parting with a five-dollar bill. I was handed a little green passbook in which I could keep track of all future deposits, if any, as well as interest earned. Over the teller’s shoulder I beheld the magnificent walk-in Mosler vault in which my five bucks would be kept, safe from Dillinger, the Beagle Boys, Butch Cassidy—even my older brother Chuck.
Of course, not ALL of Mayberry’s money was kept in the safe—just enough cash to satisfy day-to-day operations. The bulk of it was invested in various human enterprises judged by the bank president and his loan officers to be reasonably safe and sound investments. Loans that were good for the borrower, good for the lender, good for the community.
Now and again a borrower might default on a loan—or worse still, the bank president would entrust his attractive young secretary with forty thousand in cash and instead of putting it in the safe, she’d run off with it. However, she’d soon arouse suspicion after trading in her 1956 Ford for a 1957 Ford without even giving it a test drive, and by nightfall she’d probably have come to her senses and decided to return the money to the bank, less what she paid for the newer Ford. That is, she would have returned the money had she not made the fatal mistake of checking into the Bates Motel.
Worse yet, the bank president might take up with his attractive young secretary, and in order to fund the affair, stoop to embezzlement. But he wouldn’t get far in our small town because TWO Fords parked at the Bates Motel would surely set off dozens of alarms. Oversight? That’s one thing small towns have no shortage of!
Moral is that human beings are fallible, but so long as banks remained small there was no danger that some greedhead or cabal of greedheads could bring about a collapse of the entire world economy. I blame it all on whoever decided it was a good idea to fire Frank Brocke.
Frank Brocke was president of the First Bank of Troy, Idaho. When I interviewed him in 1973, Troy was a community of just over five hundred souls, with a bank serving ten thousand loyal customers scattered across the globe. Most of those accounts were the result of loans issued to students at the University of Idaho in nearby Moscow. Brocke had personally approved most of them, often based on first impressions.
“When I meet someone, I know immediately whether I’m going to loan him,” said Brocke. “They leave school and move on to cities and towns all over the map. Most of them keep banking with us because we trusted them at a time when they needed help.”
Other loyal customers included local farmers and merchants whom Brocke and his predecessor Ole Bohman had nursed through the Great Depression. Another was a former convict who a few years earlier had robbed the bank at gunpoint. Following his release from prison, the man had approached Brocke again—this time in hopes of obtaining a car loan. Frank mulled it over—a bit longer than usual—before deciding to approve the loan. “He had paid his debt to society,” Frank told me. And he paid off the car loan as well.
It wasn’t Frank’s penchant for granting loans to bank robbers that got him into trouble with the bank’s stockholders, though. It was his fierce resistance to computerization and other forms of modernization. He was vehemently opposed to charging fees for this and that, and he regarded his valued customers and clients, though numerous, as more than mere numbers. They were his friends and neighbors, folks who could count on receiving Christmas cards and occasional hand-written letters from their banker. And of course Frank and his wife Margie received many cards and letters in return—as did the bank’s board of directors.
“We bank at the First Bank of Troy,” wrote Lt. Seley Moore in San Francisco, “not because of the ease and convenience of check cashing in San Francisco or Newport, R.I. or Tokyo, but because we prefer to do business with Mr. Brocke and the bank that knows me as Seley Moore, not account #———–.”
“I have at different times held accounts in four different banks and subsequently closed all because of bullshit policies held by those institutions,” wrote another. “Before banking in Troy I had no account for about a year, but after talking to people who held accounts there and after reviewing policies of the Bank of Troy and meeting some of the nice people who work there I decided to give it a try. I have been very impressed with the service and handling, but most of all impressed by the attitude of your bank. No account numbers, ease of obtaining loans, no charges for simple bank services and other things have given me great faith in the Bank of Troy. I attribute many of these policies to president Brocke and sincerely hope he is retained in that position. If he is fired, retired or whatever, I’ll once again have to try to find a decent, friendly bank, and there aren’t very many left.”
This was penned by devoted customer in Potlatch, Idaho, 36 years ago. Today Frank Brocke has gone to his eternal reward, leaving his poor customers to wander the earth eternally in futile search for a decent, friendly bank. And whereas once there were thousands of banks to choose from, today there remain only a handful. Allow me to share a story about my own bank, with whom I have done business for almost forty years. When my wife and I first opened the account, the statements came from Walker Bank. But then Walker Bank was absorbed by the Bank of Salt Lake, which was subsequently taken over by First Interstate. Then First Interstate was swallowed up by Wells Fargo, and the main reason I haven’t switched banks is, WHY BOTHER? The way things are going, there will be only one bank, and I’m fairly certain it won’t give a hoot who I am or how long I’ve been a customer.
Awhile back I got a taste of how Wells Fargo Bank does business. My son Alex, along with forty of his University of Texas classmates, had embarked upon the world’s longest charity bicycle ride. In order to qualify, each rider had raised at least four thousand dollars to be donated toward researching a cure for cancer. Alex did this by panhandling on safety islands, juggling outside Longhorn Stadium, writing letters to various friends and relatives. His reward was a free Trek road bike and a brief meeting with cancer survivor Lance Armstrong in Austin. Then he and his friends set off for Anchorage, Alaska—north by northwest some 4,500 miles.
Along the way the team relied entirely upon the kindness of strangers for food and lodging. Churches, civic groups, relatives of riders, kind-hearted shopkeepers, restaurateurs and innkeepers all helped out. Now, it so happens my son has a weakness for corn nuts, and one day succumbed to temptation and purchased a bag at a convenience store somewhere in Oklahoma—using his check card. The following day he did the same thing, and the day after that, he did it again.
By and by a letter addressed to Alex showed up in my Salt Lake City mailbox. It somewhat resembled a monthly statement and in any event I didn’t open it because it wasn’t addressed to me. The next day another letter came, and then another. Eventually I had a whole pile of letters. Curious, I decided to open one. Omygod! Alex’s checking account had run dry! Each bag of corn nuts was costing him an overdraft fee of $35. He was literally blazing a trail of tears across Oklahoma!
Within minutes I managed to contact my son via cell phone. Funny how the bank hadn’t thought of that! Instead, they send letters via stagecoach to an address where he obviously isn’t—not unless he commutes daily from Utah to Oklahoma just to buy more corn nuts. In all, Alex’s corn nut habit had cost him almost three hundred dollars, and now the bank was threatening to close his account.
I rushed to the nearest Wells Fargo branch, the one where the chirpy tellers all address me by my first name and ask if I’m having a nice day. I introduced myself to a young assistant manager, told him about my son’s epic charity bicycle ride and how he and his friends had raised thousands of dollars for charity. Was it fair to penalize him for losing track of his checking account balance, which he usually monitors electronically except when he’s on the road and can’t access a secure Internet connection? And what’s the deal about sending overdraft notices via snail mail? I remember once in Las Vegas I made an unusually large purchase with my credit card, and within two hours the bank reached me by telephone to check on what they term “anomalous” activity. Why is anomalous credit card activity a big deal with the bank, but anomalous check card activity is not? Well, here’s why. In the case of a stolen credit card, the bank stands to LOSE money. In the case of some kid buying corn nuts in Oklahoma, they stand to MAKE money.
To his credit, the young assistant manager agreed with me one hundred percent. After all, my son has money in his savings account, which easily could have been transferred to his checking account to cover overdrafts, had he only thought to specify, when opening the account, that he would prefer not to pay $35 per bag of corn nuts. And besides, Alex’s parents have been “valued” Wells Fargo customers since 1973!
We shook hands, and he agreed to forgive all penalties. “But first,” he added, “let me run it past my boss.”
Presently I heard a commotion like cats fighting in the adjoining cubicle. Then the young manager reappeared, red-faced and held aloft by his scruff (I swear!) by an older, equally red-faced man.
“He should never have let you look at the account,” the older man fumed. “He made a BIG MISTAKE! He’s new here”
Bottom line: Alex was eventually forgiven fines for the first three bags of corn nuts, but not on the other six. That is money I ended up paying, as punishment for not opening letters not addressed to me, and for not living closer to the Overland Trail, along which checking account overdraft notices are routinely distributed, via horse-drawn stagecoach.
Sure, I’m upset, but what can I do? I could switch banks, but what’s the use? In the future, there will be just be one bank, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be anything like the First Bank of Troy.