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Alumna Louise McCarren Herring 'mother of credit unions'

by Deborah Rieselman, 4-13

In August 1934, a particular train ride from Chicago to Estes Park, Colo., was a trip of a lifetime. Among the passengers were all the East Coast delegates to a conference that would soon kick-start the national development of credit unions by founding a related trade association.

As the train wheels clattered over the tracks, delegates roamed the cars, getting to know each other, which unfortunately left them overlooking an apparent student in one of the cars. She seemed too inconsequential for anyone to notice, but the young woman was paying attention to them.

She particularly noted the conference leader's secretary was growing agitated at her inability to locate every delegate on the train. At one point, the exasperated woman groused that she had been unable to find delegate Louise McCarren even after searching every single train car and speaking to every person on the train — except "that college kid sitting over there."

That "kid" was actually an attractive 24-year-old who had graduated with a business degree from the University of Cincinnati's College of Engineering and Commerce just two years earlier in 1932. She was on the trip at the encouragement of her employer, the Kroger Co., for which she worked in the corporate office. And, as everyone would soon discover, Louise was the youngest delegate attending the historic conference.

Having overheard the secretary's conversation, Louise announced that she was the missing delegate. That's when the secretary's boss, Roy Bergengren, rudely indicated she was too young and referred to her as “a mere girl.”

"I don't think I have ever seen a man so mad," she wrote in a letter years later. "He was insulted (that) the Kroger Company would send a young brat to such an important meeting."

But the Kroger Co. leadership apparently knew what it was doing. Louise ended up serving as secretary for the Estes Park conference, the delegates of which soon founded the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) and signed its constitution. Later, Louise would represent Ohio on the new CUNA board.

During the next 50 years, Louise McCarren Herring's commitment to credit unions steadily grew. Her achievements include the following:

  • Founding the Ohio Credit Union League and working as its first managing director
  • Serving as the state’s first credit-union supervisor
  • Founding the National Deposit Guaranty Corp. and serving as its director
  • Setting up 13 small credit unions for Kroger employees
  • Personally organizing more than 500 credit unions all over Ohio
  • Assisting Bergengren in organizing the Michigan and Kentucky credit-union leagues

A job made for her

Louise seems to have been born for her life's work. Not long after she had started working for Kroger, she began empathizing with people who could not afford their groceries and who were becoming more and more frantic with each wrong move they made.

According to a CUNA article, "She became infuriated at what was known as the Bucket Shop — a loan operation that charged outrageously high interest rates. People who couldn't get the loans they needed from banks would turn to the Bucket Shop out of desperation.

"This was in the early 1930s, and desperation was rampant. People who borrowed from the Bucket Shop ended up in such deep debt holes, they could never dig out."

In the meantime, Herring heard about a new kind of financial institution where Depression-era workers could pool resources to borrow money.

"It's not about money, not about accumulating capital," she once said. "It's about helping people's lives be better. The purpose of the credit union is to reform the financial system, so that everyone can have his place in the sun."

Herring would often say, "There's a lot of brains in overalls," reports her daughter Catherine Herring. "She felt strongly that credit unions demonstrated to the financial community that the average working person is honest and would pay his bills.

"She had an uncanny ability to deal with people from all walks of life, treating everyone with dignity assured that she was neither impressed nor intimidated by position or one's station in life."

That passion for helping others was reflected in the way she inspired and supported the Over-the-Rhine project, a credit-union program, which provided financial services to the underserved.

By the time the initially crabby Roy Bergengren died in 1954, he and Herring had worked together for two decades. And he had quickly changed his mind about the "mere girl" during the momentous Estes Park gathering.

A few years later he wrote, “I am inclined to think offhand that Miss McCarren would do a better job as managing director in Ohio than almost any man who could be available. The only argument I can see against her is my hoop-skirted thinking.”

Of course, Herring was also interested in having her own family. While continuing her interest in credit unions, she married and raised five children. Several of them ended up working in credit unions themselves.

Honors for Louise

For nearly 30 years, Herring was recognized for her commitment and dedication to helping others through credit unions. Among her most prestigious honors are the following:

  • In 1976, the Ohio General Assembly named her "the mother of the credit union movement in America" — a title that has held fast, even on the national level.
  • In 1983, she was inducted into the national Cooperative Hall of Fame.
  • In 1998, Ohio Credit Union League created the Lifetime Achievement Award, the first of which was posthumously bestowed on Herring, who died in 1987.
  • In 2003, CUNA established the Louise Herring Award for Philosophy in Action, which is awarded to credit unions that exceptionally demonstrate Herring's philosophy that credit unions reflect "people helping people."

Health of credit unions today

Today, credit unions are widely accepted nonprofit financial institutions. CUNA reported this data in September 2012:

  • 7,100 credit unions were in the United States.
  • $1.02 trillion in total assets were reported by credit unions.
  • $46.5 billion (4.8%) increase over mid‐year 2011 levels was reflected in those total assets.
  • Year‐over‐year memberships were up 2.3% — more than double the U.S. population growth per year.

Editor's note: Herring was so well received by others that she must have had charisma — or at least a way of pulling others into her passion. To clearly see her powers of persuasion, read her first-person story below about a run-in with the police.

Neither snow nor jail could stop Herring

by Louise McCarren Herring

This excerpt comes from the book "Sharing the American Dream," available for download by the Credit Union Executives Society.

I almost always organized credit unions at a change of a shift or before or after working hours. One night, I went to a meeting of teachers in Columbus, Ohio. The meeting ended about 9 p.m., and since I had scheduled a meeting with the Dayton, Ohio, police for early the next morning when the late shift went off and the first shift came on, I decided to drive the 70 miles to Dayton that night. Even though it was snowing and most people would have said in those days that it was foolish to drive at night, I started out.

I got to the outskirts of Columbus and saw a streetcar parked at what I thought was the end of the line. I passed the streetcar and was immediately stopped by the police for passing a streetcar that was loading and unloading.

An officer took me back to headquarters downtown where I was told I either had to pay a fine, post bond or go to jail. Because of the snowy night, many officers were sitting around either coming off duty or waiting to go on. They listened as I explained that I could do none of these things because I had to be in Dayton early the next morning to organize a credit union for the police force there.

As I explained what a credit union was and the good it could do for working people, the officers sitting around started to pitch money up on the table to pay my fine. I made each person who contributed to my fine give me his name and address so I could repay him. Finally enough money came in to pay the fine and I was dismissed, with a date to return to organize a credit union for them.

They thought the idea was so good they were willing to pay to have a credit union organized. It gave me the opportunity to tell them, as I have told so many groups, that no one should pay to get a credit union.

(Roy) Bergengren and (his colleague Edward) Filene had secured the laws and organized the credit unions as a public service. Those who received this service without cost or obligation had a responsibility to see to it that anybody who wanted a credit union should get it just as they did — without cost or obligation.

Bergengren often paid lawyers and other local people to organize credit unions. He never paid me because I felt it was a great privilege to organize credit unions in the hours I was not working on a full-time job.

The first credit union I organized was for the members of the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks. I knew nothing about organizing credit unions so I spent the entire meeting reading aloud the bylaws and explaining the brief but exciting history of the credit union movement. Later on, I was able to cut down the time it took to organize a credit union.