(by Jim Blaine)
Annually, the National Credit Union Foundation (NCUF) recognizes an exceptional credit union leader with the Herb Wegner Individual Achievement Award. Can’t think of anything less challenging than being asked to write a nomination letter on behalf of Ralph Swoboda for this honor.
What a waste of time! Really, the selection is just too obvious, a real no-brainer, an eyes-closed slam dunk. And, in a moment, I’ll tell you why that’s so. But first, a bit about Ralph for those who don’t know…
Won’t bore you with the details of Ralph Swoboda’s credit union career. You can get off of your Tik-Tok for a moment and Google-up Ralph’s remarkable record. Ralph’s reach was international; but of most importance, Ralph Swoboda was to American credit unions what Winston Churchill was to England during the Second World War. Ralph Swoboda led CUNA – and credit unions – through two crucial, turning points, when nothing was certain, the odds were long, and everything was at risk.
You see, Herb Wegner, the charismatic, visionary leader of CUNA in the late 1970’s – for whom the Award is named, understood the future power and potential of credit unions – what they could become. But, that future required great change – new standards, new laws, new systems, greater accountability.
Mom and pop credit unions were on the verge of moving from being post office/factory floor “cigar box cooperatives” to Main Street, USA. Not all credit unions were prepared for this change, not a few were unhappy with the prospect!
Herb Wegner needed someone he could trust without reservation to advise him along this difficult path – to make sure his vision became a reality. Ralph Swoboda was the man Herb Wegner put his trust in when he hired Ralph as his General Counsel at CUNA.
And, after Herb Wegner’s untimely death, Ralph – in several executive roles and eventually as CUNA CEO – did guide credit unions skillfully across that dangerous, inflection point and into the future. Much of what credit unions are today rests on foundation stones and bridges engineered by Ralph Swoboda.
But, like Churchill in England after WW II, in 1994 CUNA sent Ralph packing! Change again was at hand and Swoboda was not as certain of the long-range impact of this next evolution.
The sea-change was in CUNA moving from being a hardscrabble, smoke-filled backroom, vibrantly passionate, states-rights democracy toward a highly centralized, DC-based, political monocracy. Ralph had won the big war, but had lost the last battle! Perhaps Ralph had become too old fashioned, too quixotic, too stubbornly Ukrainian…? Time will tell.
Lastly just for the record, Ralph Swoboda was also a man of great personal charm and presence, but not of the classical sort. Ralph was not exactly a person of well-coifed, smooth-skinned, impeccably dressed and manicured good looks. He was more into the all-natural, slightly rumpled, “came as I got up” style.
He always sported a riotous shock of vigorously unruly hair, flopping around a pair of oversized glasses – the kind the smartest kid in the class always wore. His grin was impish, frequently verging on the devilish. Ralph liked to laugh and it was a full-throated, rough-edged kind of laugh, aged by years of multi-pack-a-day Marlboros. Ralph was a bit Irish at the bar, with good endurance and always fun to be around.
But what Ralph liked best was to talk…and talk…and talk…in encyclopedic depth…especially about credit unions. As a great storyteller, Ralph told the cooperative story from the heart, he made it real, as if he meant it…which all knew he did!
So, what about that Selection Committee decision? Well folks, who did Herb Wegner trust more than anyone else? That person was Ralph Swoboda, who Wegner hired as his chief advisor, his general counsel, his “don’t let me fail in this effort” friend. Ralph Swoboda proved worthy of Herb Wegner’s trust.
Herb Wegner saw the light, Ralph Swoboda made it shine.
What’s to decide? You’re going to question Herb Wegner’s judgment?
Nah… I’m sure you’ll do the right thing!
(Editor’s note: A history of Ralph’s contributions at CUNA is at: The Cooperative Leadership of Ralph Swoboda (1948-2021)