Banking Crises, Calamities Breed Leaders of the Future

They had come from Cincinnati, Ohio to support a rally of savings and loans depositors at the Maryland state capitol in Annapolis earlier this month. The depositors were victims of corrupt practices by the millionaires in charge of these failed banks. The crowd demanded their money back while the indecisive state government was still trying to find a way out after over half a year of pondering.
The Ohio visitors had been through this experience themselves. In March 1985, Toni Handley and Deby Ricker were leading normal lives as wives, mothers and jobholders. On that morning in early March, they read the newspaper article that reported trouble with the large Home State Savings Association. Lines of depositors formed quickly in front of the bank to withdraw their savings before it was too late. But it was too late.

Handley and Ricker saw the Governor assure the people on television that their money was secure. They were skeptical. Within a week they had raised $500, rented a hall and announced the formation of a depositors group. It took off and soon had 7000 active members. The scenes at the meetings were heart-rending. Half of the depositors were retired people and many, remembering the bank failures in the Depression, cried in despair. Other depositors declared their anger at the business moguls who did this to them.

Ohio officials moved much more quickly, albeit not without major windfalls for a rescuing New York bank, than their counterparts in Maryland to liberate the savings accounts. The day of victory in mid-May turned the state house in Columbus into a festival of celebration by the depositors.

To Handley and Ricker, it was also a relief. The previous weeks were exhausting ones. They were spending three days a week in Columbus learning and practicing lobbying. Handley’s 17 year old son wanted to change his name because his school friends were ribbing him about his mother and her many television appearances. She lost 15 pounds. The two women, in their thirties, were part of the leadership of the Cincinnati branch of the depositors’ revolt The state legislators dubbed them the skirts squad, because the leaders were all women.

I asked them whether in retrospect they are glad this crisis happened to them. “Without a doubt,” they said almost in unison. And I learned why they replied this way. The bank failure changed their life into one of civic leadership. They learned the arts and skills of being leaders — how to mobilize their fellow depositors keep them from being depressed and resigned, focus their energies on a strategy of action and then overcome the sexism of male state legislators with persistence and facts.

The mobilization by victims or their kin to corrective action is a significant and growing phenomenon in our country. From mothers against drunk drivers to a host of other less heralded groups:: led by aggrieved people trying to make sense out of their sorrow, people are working to prevent similar tragedies from befalling others. From the safety of summer camps for children to mandatory nutrient standards for infant formula to parents, who lost their offspring in car crashes, pushing for air bags, constructive change out of tears is marching forward.

These crises and calamities are principal breeding grounds for leaders of the future. Members of the Ohio depositors group are running for local and state elective offices. Ricker told me how she lost her awe of both the media and the elected politicians and gained a greater self-confidence in her own ability to match both. They took on the banking lobbyists and surprised themselves with their success.

During their day of interstate consumer solidarity at Annapolis, the two women from Ohio assured and advised the Maryland depositors who were despairing of ever getting their savings back. In return Handley and Ricker were excited by a legislative proposal that their Maryland counterparts were supporting to establish a permanent financial consumers association with the legal right to insert membership solicitation messages inside the monthly bank statements and insurance premium bills. They intend to launch a drive in their state for this way of banding together for consumer protection.

Both Toni Handley and Deby Ricker can’t wait to get involved in another issue. They were radiating energy as well as the spirit of citizens who have shown they can make a difference and were no longer “programmed to believe that you can’t fight city hall,” as one of them put it. Small wonder that a newspaper reporter is writing a book on their adventures.

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