Credit union stories remind us who we are and what we value. Our shared history is sometimes best understood as a narrative strung together with anecdotes.
Joe Cugini (1930-2019) is one of the credit union community’s personal pillars on which we all stand today. He was CEO of Westerly Community Credit union from 1959-2000. In addition he held leadership roles as President of the RI Credit Union League, Chair of CUNA, Presdent of the World Council and a member of the Federal Reserve’s Advisory Board.
His two-generation CEO tenure saw credit unions evolve from thousands of local startups to become the second largest depository system in the American financial marketplace.
Last week I called his wife Betty to see if there were any publications from his tenure as Chair of CUNA. In that role he had introduced NCUA Chairman Ed Callahan at CUNA’s February GAC conference—were any records of that era left around, such as cassettes of GAC speeches?
The answer was no. But she did share two stories that captured a time when credit unions were considered “family.”
A Dinner Before CUNA’s GAC
Betty was an active volunteer leader of the Girl Scouts of Rhode Island. In that capacity she would attend the annual National Girl Scout Convention. She believes the February 1982 meeting took place in Texas.
In the middle of the conference, she got a call from Joe, asking her to catch the next plane to Washington D.C. The event was an evening dinner with the new NCUA Chair Ed Callahan. Wives were invited. Sara Barr, wife of CUNA’s DC political affairs director Jim Barr, would meet her at the airport and take her directly to dinner-no time to change.
Betty arrived at the Iron Gate Restaurant, built within an old stable building in the heart of DC, in her Girl Scout leader’s uniform. She only took off the sash with the scout badges. She was seated next to Ed Callahan.
As they chatted, both learned they had been teachers–Betty in kindergarten, and Ed at Boylan High School in Rockford, Illinois. Ed remarked to Betty, “You welcomed them in and I said goodby to them.”
While sharing their teaching careers, Ed related an event that occurred while principal at Boylan where his children attended. The shared concern among parents was to make senior night a celebration that would avoid potential downsides-drinking, driving, out late after everything had closed and nowhere to go.
She said that Ed described how he approached the parents about this common worry and asked them to donate money to create a special “senior night out.” From the donated funds he rented school buses to take all the seniors for the entire evening to a local camp ground (it may have been a Y). The location had food, basketball courts, a pool, and plenty of recreational options plus cabins for sleeping–just bring a sleeping bag. Ed said all the kids were so tired by morning that all they could do was go home and sleep. Problems avoided-through a collaborative undertaking.
Joe’s Personal Legacy
As Betty told of her conversation with Ed, she related one of Joe’s proudest initiatives. During a post-Christmas holiday their children had exhausted all the local entertainment options (films, concerts, shopping for presents) and were looking for something to do the rest of the vacation.
In high school Joe had twice won the Rhode Island high school basketball championship. As CEO of Westerly CU, he offered to sponsor a local Holiday Basketball Tournament to be a center of activity to fill this vacation activity gap. Today the WCCU Holiday Tournament is ongoing. Here is a current description of the event:
This tournament was created in 1984 as a way to bring together local school communities in a competitive way to collaboratively raise funds for their sports boosters. This event has become and continues to be a community tradition. This year, WCCU welcomes back the teams from Chariho, South Kingstown, Stonington, and Westerly High Schools.
As the sole sponsor since its inception, Westerly Community Credit Union underwrites all expenses of the Holiday Basketball Tournament and as always, donates every dollar of the gate proceeds directly to the participating schools’ sports boosters. Last year each of the four participating schools received $2,000.00! To date, this tournament has raised over $258,577!
How important was this event in Joe’s mind? The following is from his obituary: In lieu of flowers, donations in Joe’s memory may be made to the Joseph N. Cugini WCCU Holiday Basketball Tournament Fund c/o Westerly Community Credit Union – 122 Granite Street, Westerly, RI 0289.
The “Best” Lives On As Stories Are Told
The dinner conversation and Holiday Basketball tournament are events which occurred four decades ago. The tournament continues. The details of Betty’s evening dialogue with Ed are recalled today, almost verbatim.
This story about Ed illustrates his special ability to create a “comfort zone” when meeting others. Credit union events often had this feeling of “family get togethers.”
Betty and Sara still remember the evening today. As the lead actors leave the stage, these women’s stories remind us what we value in human character.
The “best” in each of us continues through relationships. Not just relationships dependent on professional roles, but the more special moments such as an evening meal with coop “family.”