Thursday, August 2, 2012

Roy Cropp and the Lawrence Educators Credit Union

Though my professional interest in the history and organizational dynamics of credit unions developed later in my life, my first awareness of the existence of the cooperative institutions was the result of my paternal grandfather, Roy Cropp. A high school guidance counselor by profession, Roy spent several decades as the part-time manager of the Lawrence Educators Credit Union of Lawrence, Kansas, and his going out to work in the office several nights a week was a consistent element of my father's childhood. Since becoming interested in credit union history, I've been meaning to sit down with my grandfather and discuss his experience as a credit unionist, and my recent trip to Kansas presented just that opportunity.

Roy and Matt at the entrance of the original LECU
As with many credit union people of his generation, Roy Cropp became involved in the movement through his work. Having grown up on a Kansas farm during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, he began his career at Lawrence High School in 1954 teaching vocational agricultural technology while simultaneously working on his masters degree in guidance and counselling. He was offered a job as a guidance counselor at LHS when he finished his degree in 1957, and he continued in that post until his retirement in 1990.

The office was on the second floor
A few years later, the Lawrence Educators Credit Union was founded to promote thrift and make credit available to the teachers of Lawrence's school system. The district provided the credit union with some office space on the second floor of the administrative building adjacent to LHS, and members would stop by to conduct their business from 4-6pm on Mondays and Wednesdays.

After five years of service to the credit union, its first manager retired, and the board approached Roy to ask if he'd take over. He agreed, but later recalled to me that he often regretted the decision during the first two years of his tenure. The previous manager had left the organization mired in debt, and Roy's first major challenge was getting the LECU back in the black. With some careful financial management, he was able to retire the debts within a few years, and he pledged to never again have the credit union borrow money. That conservative position sometimes put him at odds with the central credit union, which encouraged institutions with more loan demand than deposits to borrow to make up the difference, but Roy held firm and the LECU only lent from deposits for the whole of Roy's time as manager.

The LECU is now part of the KUCU.
By the mid-1980s, the growing scale of the credit union's operations, as well as the needs of the school district, led to the transfer of the LECU's operations from its little second floor office to another free, school district-owned facility about six blocks away. Nearing his retirement from his guidance counselling career, Roy stepped down as the LECU's manager in 1988. Shortly thereafter, the credit union followed the national trend and merged with a credit union affiliated with the telephone company. That credit union, in turn, joined the 66 Federal Credit Union, known locally in Lawrence as the KU Credit Union which, as of 2011, had 56,000 members and $595 million in assets.

When reflecting on his decades of experience in the credit union movement, Roy hit on few key points. First, he repeatedly emphasized the "people helping people" element of credit unionism. For instance, at several moments in his career he approved, despite the inherent risk and uncertainty, loans to female members going through messy divorces which helped them bridge the financial gap at an incredibly hard time in their lives. Even decades after his retirement, Roy mentioned that he is still regularly approached and thanked by people who received vital assistance from the credit union when they had no place else to turn.

Second, he emphasized that member ownership is the key element that has contributed to the success of credit unionism. For him, loyalty to that principle is what has allowed the "little man" to actively participate on equal footing with big players in building a secure financial life, and it also connects the credit union project to that of the larger cooperative movement.

This latter realization was driven home for Roy in the early 1980s when he and my grandmother, Wilma, went with a group on a two week tour of Scandinavia. While also visiting the usual tourist sites, Roy made a point of dropping in on a number of cooperatives and credit unions, and he was deeply impressed by the impact they had on the lives of people in those countries. Having been raised in a farm family and still deeply connected to agriculture, he quickly developed a solid appreciation for the positive influence of cooperative credit on farmers in those countries, and he observed in our conversation that "cooperatives were essential to the success of many of the people who I met there."

In sum, Roy Cropp's career as the part-time manager of the Lawrence Educators Credit Union from 1966 to 1988 serves as an example of what the Canadian cooperative historian Ian Macpherson has described as "populist" credit unionism. Driven by the volunteer (or minimally compensated) labor of people who believed in credit unions as more of a cause than a career (as they usually had other careers), it was the enthusiasm and hard work of countless people like Roy that transformed the credit union movement from a promising idea into a powerful network of institutions that has made economic democracy a part of the daily lives of tens of millions of Americans. Hearing the stories of such people has the potential to powerfully deepen our relationship with the rich inheritance that is the credit union movement.

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