A Georgia Banker at Home With a 'Wonderful Life'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

'WHEN Interstate 95 was opened, nearly all the motels and tourist homes around here had to close, and restaurants too," says Valene Bennett. He was one of the founders of the Alma (Ga.) Exchange Bank 52 years ago, and he's now chairman of the board.Alma is on Route 1 in Bacon County. It is an agricultural town of about 4,000 people. Once there were so many gas stations that Route 1 here was known as "gasoline alley." This is tobacco country, timber too, with lots of hogs, cotton, and peanuts. "A lot of people left town then," says Mr. Bennett, when the wider and faster interstate highway turned Route 1 into the old way to drive south. "I stayed." Then he laughs: "I didn't know any better." Bennett knew better. His commitment was to the community. He and the Exchange Bank had started in 1939 as a credit union to help a growing town. For awhile it was the only credit union in the United States offering checking privileges. "Eight of us put up $5 each," Bennett says in his husky, courteous voice. He wears a crisp white shirt and tie, a polite gentleman with a twinkle in his eye. "Our first loan was a farm loan. The farmer had mules as collateral. Now we're taking big tractors or airplanes as collateral." Since 1939 Bennett and the Exchange Bank have been like banker Jimmy Stewart in the Frank Capra film "It's a Wonderful Life," except there is no villain in this story. The Exchange Bank was a true pillar of the community and still is today. Bennett has been active in civic affairs, sponsored numerous 4H projects, served on many boards, and at one time was president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. "Even during the Depression we managed to make a little money," Bennett says. "We've never missed paying a dividend and we've plowed back enough earnings into the institution to keep our capital base where it ought to be even during the Depression." Bennett says the bank's current capital base is around 10 percent, nearly double what is expected of big-city banks now. Bennett is appalled at the corruption in banking. "What is going on in banking today disturbs me," he says."There's been too much greed, but there's probably enough fault to go around to everybody." Why has the bank succeeded for 53 years? The answer comes easily, the result of a man who put service first and never fell victim to greed. "We've tried to help others," Bennett says, "and treated our employees fairly. We've also stayed with making loans within the community." If Bennett were a little taller, he could be Jimmy Stewart.

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