Hedges recalls 25 years in Culver banking and end of historic local era

By: 
Jeff Kenney
Citizen editor

For nearly a century, the State Exchange Bank in Culver was one of the staple employers in the community, seeing scores of multi-decade employees pass through its ranks at various intervals packed into spaces large and small on multiple floors of the buzzing hive of multifaceted duties.

Those days have been over for a few decades, at least, so it's a significant milestone that a familiar face behind the counter at today's First Farmer's Bank & Trust marked 25 years in the building in October.

Jacqueline 'Jackie' Hedges, then, is a unique bridge between the long era of a bank near the top of its ranks within the state of Indiana for much of the 20th century -- no doubt due in large part to the leadership of longtime president W.O. Osborn, who died in 1982 -- and the much smaller operation, part of a chain of what has now become 38 banks, based in Converse, Indiana. In fact, she's one of three regular faces behind the desk including Amy Sustainta, who has been with the bank for 15 years).

Hedges is aware of the storied legacy of the bank -- indeed, how could she not be, spending a quarter-century interfacing with all ages of Culverites?

Hedges, however, didn't grow up in Culver. Instead the larger -- but still small -- town of Highland, Indiana was home to her family. Married in the fall of 1990 to high school sweetheart Mark Hedges, she and her husband took over what had been the family farm from his father near Ancilla College in Marshall County, building their home in 1994 (they have lived there ever since).

Mike took a job as a mechanic at Oliver Ford in Plymouth where Mike Fitterling, another long-familiar Culver name, was his boss for many years. When Mark asked Fitterling if the latter knew of a banking job for Jackie, Fitterling suggested what had then become Norcen (the reorganized title given to the former State Exchange Bank after a handful of years of legal wrangling in the fallout of a myriad of issues following Osborn's death).

Jackie Hedges, then, began her tenure with the bank on Oct. 15, 1990. At first, she says, not much changed.

"This (the current one) was the teller line when I started," she says. "The back offices were the loan officers. Upstairs was bookkeeping and the controller's office. What computers they had back then were upstairs.

Most everything was handwritten on paper, but the statements were upstairs."

The street level of the bank, explains Hedges, was the credit department. In those days, Culver's branch was part of a Norcen family inherited from the State Exchange days and including branches in Argos, LaPaz, Bremen, and Granger (Plymouth had been part of that group, but wasn't by 1990). Hedges, in fact, spent much of her first year at the Bremen branch, grateful to shift to Culver (which meant less winter-time driving) when a Culver employee left to have a baby.

"I want to say an average of 50 people were working here when I started," she recalls, reflecting a paradigm of the operation dating back decades as the company's offerings had gradually expanded from simply traditional banking.

"There were desks in hallways in every nook and cranny," says Hedges. "They were divided by cubicle partitions. You had credit workout -- like delinquent loans -- and that was Ned Davis and Judy Grover. Cassie Gunder (now a familiar face at the Culver branch of the First National Bank of Monterey) sat at a desk with a partition, with Joyce Hanselman. As big as this building is, they didn't have enough offices with doors!"

Hedges plumbs the depths of her memory to pin down her many co-workers during the Norcen era, and the list reads like a partial 'Who's Who' of Culver names, including, she says, Gladys Snyder, Bob Manual, Larry Miller, Lynn Geiger, Jean Kindred, Linda Couts, Barb Riffey (now Wynn), Mary Ann Randsdale, Vivian Bush, Eldon and Chris Pleotz, Joyce and Betty Hanselman, Elaine Peterson (another mainstay at today's Monterey bank), Marlene Shoddy, Alice Neff, Linda McCune, Edna Mae Craft, Tom Bendy, Vern McKee, Marge Baker -- the list goes on, and she knows she's missed a number.

"Everyone worked here at some point," she adds. "And I don't even remember the older women who had just retired."

Employees at various branches also helped out from time to time at other branches. Even at Culver there were seven tellers at any given time, including two at the drive-through window.

WHEN IT ALL CHANGED

Everything changed in early 1995, when Norcen merged with Indiana Federal Bank, based in Valparaiso.

"Everyone was gone except the teller line," recalls Hedges. "The credit department was gone, and bookkeeping. We went from 50 people to four or five. There was no loan department except Larry Miller (who would manage the bank through its various incarnations up to his 2008 retirement). Stuff had to be sent out.

"Coming from the outside I was surprised by the change," she adds, "but for the people who had been here it was a very big shock, being the only bank in town. And the history and passion people had for this place in general -- some took it personally. It was like a little family."

The bank underwent various shifts in ownership in the following years, including Pinnacle Bank in 1997, officially Citizens Bank (and later Trust Company) in 1998, Civitas in 1999, and 5/3 Bank in 2000 (some local wags quipped that the bank should invest in a changeable sign to save each subsequent company the costs associated with changing signs).

One other holdover from the old days of the bank who remained for some years, says Hedges, was Barb Snyder, who stayed with the operation until she passed away in 2005.

Old vestiges of the bank's salad days gradually faded, Hedges recalls, such as the fabled diner which had started in the basement level -- which also boasted then state-of-the-art projection equipment and refined meeting facilities -- in the 1930s and busily served the slew of employees passing through at meal-time. That space was still home to special dinners during the Norcen days, she says, though the cafe proper was no more by then.

"When it went to four people, we didn't even go downstairs," she says. "It got spooky to sit downstairs on a half hour lunch by yourself!"

Gone were the days of Osborn hosting in the bank's cafeteria and boardrooms visiting delegation of IBM national executives, at whose New York convention he'd been the keynote speaker in 1949.

Of course the biggest changes for bank employees once staff numbers had been reduced were those affecting many professions: in the area of technology.

It may be hard to recall today that making a purchase not so long ago may have depended upon making it to the bank during open hours, but, "When I first came there were no ATMs or computers," Hedges notes.

"We were still hand-writing everything. So the introduction of the tellers having their own computers -- they had that in Highland when I left, so I came here and had gone backwards!"

Interestingly, Indiana Federal introduced teller computers (computers had been employed back in the State Exchange days for various tasks, but tellers continued their work by hand), though Hedges recalls that Pinnacle Bank reverted methodology back to paper. While computers returned under Civitas, 5/3 Bank was "the most tech-driven company" of the previous owners, she says, being a nationwide, "huge" company with branches across the US.

THE MOST MEMORABLE DAY

Jackie Hedges can remember the date -- July 15 -- she was robbed at gunpoint behind the teller's counter, even if she can't remember the year (she knows it was during the Indiana Federal period of the mid-1990s).

She does recall having had a seminar at the Culver Cove on how to handle such an occurrence, not long before the robbery, and employing some of the information from the seminar.

Between 1 and 2 p.m., a lone gunman whom she was never able to identify entered the bank, taking what money he could get quickly from her teller's station. She would later be asked by Culver-based Indiana State Police officer Bob Rich how long the robbery took, and would answer several minutes, when in fact the entire incident was less than one.

"It was a little dicey after then when somebody came in the door," she admits.

FIRST FARMERS DAYS

The present (since 2006) First Farmers ownership, notes Hedges, is a step back to the regional model that predated 5/3.

"We were the thirteenth branch for First Farmers," she says, adding the company is now home to 38 branches (Culver's First Farmers is overseen by Janet Wilde, who also runs the Knox and North Judson branches).

"But it doesn't feel big and corporate," Hedges says of First Farmers. "And we don't feel like a big bank here to the customers."

Of course one reason for State Exchange Bank's bursting-at-the-seams employment numbers relates to economic trends across the board during much of the 20th century: localized banking for the majority of community residents, and the far less technological nature of the industry.

"The numbers (of customers) have gone down (over 25 years)," acknowledges Hedges. "We have another bank in town, and a lot of people bank out of town. Those who work in Plymouth may bank there, too."

TECHNOLOGY - THE GOOD AND THE BAD

But, she adds, technology has played a major role.

"You can bank anywhere now, with online banking. We see people leave and move to Florida and never close their account because they don't have to. They can still call here and we know who they are, five years later. So that urgency of needing to bank where you work is (eliminated) because of technology.

"But," she adds, making a sweeping gesture over a bank space occupied by just three employees, "technology has also made it this."

That said, Hedges and Sustainta are clearly gratified to say they know the names of most customers, though admittedly with electronic accounts, actual interactions may arise only when a customer has a problem.

Sometimes, though, they know customers through long-familiar family members such as parents, aunts, and the like.

"It's a funny thing," Hedges muses, recalling a frequent kindergartener banking with his mother and recently returning following his college graduation. "I don't feel like I've aged, but you see people change."

Hedges says she "never thought I would retire from here," and in fact never expected to remain this long in banking, even if in "the old days," it was almost expected that bank employees would retire there. Sustainta, too, defies the norms of the day, she notes, even at 15 years in.

"I could have gone anywhere but it's comfortable," she says. "You get that when you're somewhere this long, but it's also the fact that I know Wanda Von Ehr worked here, and her daughter, and I know their family when they come in. That sort of thing. Even in Plymouth you might not have that sense of really knowing people, and Plymouth's not that big."

"Culver's very welcoming," she adds, noting that even shopping or dining out of town someone will look at her and say, "I know you."

And it's a safe bet Jackie Hedges knows them as well.

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