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Tell Our Story: Celebrating 75 Years, Tri-County FCU Exemplifies CU Movement
Thursday, March 26, 2015 6:55 AM

Tell Our StoryTri-County FCU

Like most older credit unions, Tri-County Federal Credit Union's beginnings may have been humble, but the need for their services to a specific field of membership was so great that once it got off the ground, significant growth was inevitable. In many ways, the history of Tri-County parallels the history of credit unions across the country. As we congratulate them on their 75th year of service, we are reminded that institutions like Tri-County have survived the tumultuous ups and downs of the American economy, and that is a testament to their members and the staff and volunteers who carried them into the 21st Century.

Let's Begin at the Beginning

On Feb. 29, 1940, 11 post office workers from Shawnee, Oklahoma, and neighboring towns met in the Aldridge Hotel to organize a federal credit union. The history and purpose of credit unions was given by Mr. H. L. Peterson, farm credit administration representative, and a month later, on March 27, the Tri-County Postal Employees Federal Credit Union charter was granted. They set up shop in the Federal/Postal building in Shawnee.

Those original 11 members were the first shareholders, and all officers were also volunteers. The maximum amount for a share account was $250, and the maximum loan was $200. All borrowers were compelled to make a deposit in a share account, along with their repayment of loan.

For comparison purposes against today's numbers, in 1941, the year-old credit union had quadrupled to 48 members, and the board voted to pay the treasurer $2 a month. The credit union paid $2.36 in dues to the Oklahoma Credit Union League, and their first audit cost $4.75. In 1942, a 5 percent dividend was earned on shares, the treasurer’s salary was raised to $5 per month, and the by-laws were amended to include all federal employees in the Tri-County area.

World War II Leaves its Mark

With the onset of World War II, times were very hard. A quorum could not be reached at the annual meeting in 1943 because many board and committee members had resigned to serve their country.

After the war years, the credit union prospered. In keeping with the times, the 10-year-old credit union updated its equipment and purchased its first adding machine. It was 1950, and Tri-County had total assets of $7,877.77 and 58 members.

Modernizing with America

In 1954, a fire-proof safe was purchased for $242. This same safe is still in the credit union office today. A typewriter was purchased in 1955 and a telephone was installed to bring the office up to "modern times."

With assets of more than $20,000 and 100 memberships, the credit union saw several government agencies close local offices in 1962. Delinquency became a problem and membership began to decline, but steps were taken to encourage growth.

By 1967, business had increased and membership had risen to 305. But in May of that year, tragedy struck. Tri-County treasurer J.C. Presley and another credit union member were killed in an auto accident. Many long hours were spent by the directors of the credit union discussing the credit union’s future. Frank Johnson, an original shareholder who had gone on to become the director at the Oklahoma Credit Union League, agreed to be temporary treasurer until a permanent treasurer, Jess Mitchell, was hired. Office hours were increased from 20 to 24 hours per week.

The 30th anniversary was celebrated in 1970 with a name change to Tri-County Federal Credit Union, reflecting the addition of all federal employees, which had been its true membership for several years.

Joyce Wellman was hired in October of that year to replace Jess Mitchell who retired. Wellman was instrumental in the success of the credit union, where she would stay until 1999. For most of those 30 years she was the sole full-time employee.

In 1974, the credit union reached a half million in assets. Nationally, the 1970s brought major changes in the products offered by credit unions. Legislation expanded services to credit union members, including certificates of deposit and mortgage lending, and the number of credit union members more than doubled nationwide.

At Tri-County, the all-time high rate on dividends of 8.5 percent APR was paid in 1981, and the credit union reached one million in assets. The maximum loan limit was raised to $15,000. The first annual meeting was held at the Tecumseh American Legion Hall—a tradition continuing through the 75th annual meeting in 2015.

Keeping Up with Technology

Current Tri-County FCU CEO Sue Lam said with the advent of the computer age, in 1982 all records were converted to the new CUNA data system, using 8-inch floppy disks. Many hours were spent on the conversion, and thereafter, all mistakes could be blamed on "the computer."

Rates remained high during the 1980s. Federal employment grew as well as membership, and Tri-County's bylaws were amended to include the City of Tecumseh employees.

The late 1980s and 1990s brought many technological changes—fax machines, electronic transfer of funds, and, of course, the need for frequent computer system updates. A shredder was purchased for the destruction of sensitive records and many permanent records were microfilmed.

Tri-County FCU celebrated its 50th anniversary in February 1990.

Senseless Tragedy Precedes the New Millennium

The 1995 Federal Building bombing in downtown Oklahoma City brought about the tragic loss of fellow credit union employees and friends, changing many lives forever. This event also brought about many new regulations, namely the US Patriot Act and a national Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). 

The year 2000 brought about concerns referred to as Y2K. Extensive testing was required in 1999 to assure the computer system would be ready for the new century. Office staff even came to work on Jan. 1, 2000, and, of course, there was no great crash of systems.

Technology continued to trend toward instant credit. Many tasks previously handled through the mail began to be electronically transmitted with the email revolution. The 2007 financial crisis and recession affected all credit unions, but especially small credit unions with additional regulatory burdens.

Modern Day Tri-County

The credit union industry celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2009, and Tri-County celebrated along with them.

During the 2009 annual meeting, one of the frequent attendees—an 86-year-old credit union member since 1955 when he was employed by the post office—asked if he could address the membership. He reported that upon his retirement, he'd moved to Tulsa to be closer to his daughter, but he drove 90 miles to attend the annual meetings. During his address, he spoke of how Tri-County Federal Credit Union reminded him of the television show and theme song of the TV show "Cheers" because "sometimes you just want to go where everyone knows your name, and they’re always glad you came."

Today, that member is 92 and he still visits the Tri-County office when he's in town. Sue Lam says, "I always get a big hug and am humbled by the loyalty of our membership."

Wellman recalled a new member who, upon opening a new account, asked her, "Will you ever require me to remember or know my account number?" Wellman replied, "Why no, Mr. Roberts. We are able to look up your account number, and I will certainly remember your name." He said that was a good answer because he would not have opened the account if she'd responded otherwise. He'd done business at other places where he was asked for his account number, and his reply was, "When I opened my account here, I was a name, not a number. You gave me a number. If you want it, you have to look it up."

Wellman said that was another reminder of the true credit union difference; credit unions are about people, not profits (and not numbers).

In 2014, Oklahoma credit unions numbered 65, with more than one million members. Tri-County FCU is the oldest chartered credit union in Shawnee. Only six different treasurer/managers have been employed in 75 years; and for seven-and-a-half decades, though they relocated to five different rooms, they remained in the Federal/Postal Building for 75 years.

"The total amount of loan losses since 1940 is only $44,376," said Lam, "a testament to the loyalty of our members. In emergencies, we have even accommodated members over the weekend for loans or share withdrawals by opening the office."

Lam continues: "Although Tri-County is considered quite small as a financial institution, we have many of the same requirements as the largest credit unions. We are a two-person office and take pride in the fact that we wear many hats. A real person still answers the phone. We consider our members family and recognize many by voice. Office staff serves as tellers, loan officers, collection officers, marketing directors, investment managers, IT specialists, payroll clerks, and, in some cases, a personal counselor."

Tri-County believes in community involvement. Lam recounts that for several years, office staff volunteered at the Annual 8th Grade County Career Fair. They donate funds to the annual "Boo on Bell'” event in October, sponsored by Safe Events for Families, and they participate in Credit Unions for Kids on behalf of Children's Miracle Network by selling candy bars. Since 2009, Tri-County has been recognized as the largest contributor to CMN among credit unions under 5 million in assets in the state of Oklahoma.

Lam sums up her credit union's place among the greater credit union movement this way: "The credit union movement began with a simple idea that people can achieve a better standard of living for themselves and others by pooling their savings and making loans to neighbors and co-workers. And, even during our 75th anniversary year, at Tri-County Federal Credit Union, this idea is remarkably still true today."