Robbing a bank in the 1950s wasn’t as easy as it is today. Take the most famous bank robbery of all time dubbed by the FBI as ‘the crime of the century,’ and by the public and the media as the ‘fabulous Brink’s robbery.’ According to the FBI’s website the event took place on January 17, 1950, in Boston, Massachusetts. Seven men wearing Halloween masks entered the Brinks Building at 7:27 in the evening and made their way through three or four locked doors to the counting room. Few robbers have been more dedicated and hard working than the eleven-member Brinks gang who trained for their caper over a two-year period that included several trial runs in which they accessed the Brinks building after hours.
On the night of the actual break-in, the seven-man burglary squad entered the counting room and held the five Brinks employees at gunpoint while the crew helped themselves to $1.2 million in cash and another million and a half in checks and money orders. In today’s dollars, the loot purloined from the Brinks Company amounted to approximately twenty-seven million dollars, a staggering sum in 1950. However, given the $22 trillion lost in the big bank heist of 2008, known euphemistically as the ‘U.S. financial crisis,’ the Brinks haul sounds like chump change.
Three factors accounted for the difference in banking in the 1950s (and up until 1980 when Congress passed the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act ). First, mid-century banking was an honest profession run by men who adhered to the ethical standards of the day. Few if any women bankers existed back then, kind of like today, but we can assume they were honest as well. Second, banking was tightly regulated after the Great Depression, which everyone in the country agreed was a sensible decision. And finally, bank robbers and fraudsters went to jail when they were caught, no matter how rich they were and no matter how big their banks were, unlike today in which most people agree the best way to rob a bank is to own one.
Fortunately for me, my uncle owned a bank. Or at least that’s what I thought until my father set me straight.
“Your uncle is the President and Chairman of the Board, but he doesn’t own the bank.” Then he thought for a minute and added, “though it pretty much amounts to the same thing.”
My father’s afterthought was correct in the sense that my uncle served as the bank’s chief decision maker and final authority on matters large and small. He appointed the members of the Board of Directors, all of whom happened to be friends, and he ran the bank in the fashion of a benevolent dictator, deciding on employee hiring, firing, and salaries, and serving as sole member of the mortgage committee.
Where my father’s comment missed the mark lay in my uncle’s strict adherence to financial rules and regulations. A more ethical banker couldn’t be found, then or now. And while he wasn’t opposed to nepotism when it came to hiring, he was known to turn down a mortgage loan for close relatives if their credit and/or spending habits failed to meet his standards.
“Look at this,” he raved to my former husband who served as bank vice-president during one harried year of our married life.
My then husband sat across the table from my outraged uncle, and thumbed through the papers belonging to the soon-to-be-doomed home mortgage applicant. “Look at what? He seems solid to me. Good-paying job, good credit rating—”
“He has a boat loan,” my uncle sputtered. “A loan. On a boat.” He shook his head, sending a bewildering look in his nephew-in-law’s direction. “People who can’t afford to pay for a boat have no business buying a boat. Shows poor judgment.” He reached for the rubber stamp with the word ‘REJECTED’ in bright red capital letters, and slammed it down on the top sheet of the application.
It was into this environment that I ventured at the age of sixteen, following my junior year in high school. I was dying to have a job and was sorely in need of cash. Until that summer, my earning capacity had been limited to the paltry fees I received in exchange for babysitting my younger brothers, and picking and selling fruits and vegetables on our small family farm. Thus, I was in high spirits at the thought of entering the white-collar world of clean work, regular paychecks, benefits, and the minimum wage, which at that time was a dollar an hour, or roughly the equivalent of twelve to fifteen dollars an hour today, a fact apparently unknown to today’s Congressmen and women. Overtime work paid time-and-a-half, which I decided I’d welcome, certain as I was that I stood to earn a fortune in my first bank job.
Since I was a minor, full-time employment required working papers signed by my parents and my employer, in this case my uncle for whom I’m named. I hiked down to the high school office for the application. After securing the forms, I drove to the office of our family doctor, Dr. Cavallo, for a note attesting to the fact that I was physically fit for a full-time job. Laden with my signed forms, my birth certificate (the real thing not a copy, since these were the days before Xerox made photocopies ubiquitous), and Dr. Cavallo’s note affirming my health and wellness, I trekked back to the school to pick up my working papers in time for my first bank job the following Monday.
I spent the next few days tromping through thrift stores and the Nearly New Shop on Jay Street assembling a suitable working girl wardrobe. Since I weighed less than ninety-five pounds, I had my pick of clothes from both the women’s and children’s sections. I spent Saturday and Sunday washing and ironing my next-to-new clothes and barely slept Sunday night. Monday morning finally arrived and I arrived at my new job ten minutes early. I informed the security officer guarding the bank’s front door that I was now an employee. He recognized me and unlocked the door, while at the same time explaining about the employee entrance in the back of the building, a minor point my uncle had forgotten to tell me.
I crossed the marble floor with confidence, knowing exactly where to go and who to see, a manager by the name of Kenny Barber, whom I’d met several times on my visits to the bank. However, until I began working for Kenny, I never knew he suffered from some kind of speech impediment, or maybe Tourette syndrome, since he never uttered a complete sentence without swearing. Damn and hell mostly, occasionally the s-word, but never the f-bomb. Even inveterate swearers like Kenny (and my father) would be appalled at the casual use of the f-word in what passes as polite society today.
Two additional new hires joined me on my first day of work: Jean Hopewell, whose father served on the bank’s Board of Directors, and Marty Veddar, the brother of one of the bank’s secretaries, nepotism being the highest and best job qualification in my uncle’s financial institution. He justified his hiring decisions on the basis of trust. More than any other industry, he believed, banking required honest employees, a hiring principal lacking in today’s financial sector. By my uncle’s logic, the best way to ensure ethical employees was to hire the relatives of people he knew and trusted. It was this propensity for integrity that kept his institution from engaging in the shady practices that led to the big Savings and Loan scandal of the 1970s. I only wish he were CEO today of a big Wall Street firm like Goldman Sachs. They could stand to benefit from his example and the public would be better off (literally).
Both Jean Hopewell and Marty Veddar were a year ahead of me in school having graduated the week before starting their bank jobs. Jean was headed to Mount Holyoke College in the fall and only worked until the end of the first week in August, leaving the rest of the month for the very important task of clothes shopping with her mother in preparation for her freshman year. I’d heard of Mount Holyoke from one of my friends who dreamt of attending. It sounded like a dreadful school to me, full of snobby girls with too much money and too little social conscience. Not somewhere I felt I’d belong or be happy. In fact, a few years ago I attended a dinner with a Holyoke grad from that era. She prattled on about her job at the Fed and her friends Alan and Ben, only confirming my teenage suspicions about the place.
My daily job at the bank began with the morning newspaper, the obituary section in particular, where I’d ascertain whether or not the newly dead possessed an account at our bank. If so, I’d flag the ledger card to warn the tellers in case a shady relative arrived to withdraw funds. Next, I’d peruse our copy of the local police report, searching out the names of known forgers and bad check cashers, which I’d distribute to the tellers. Only once did I recognize the name of someone, a cousin of mine, the son of my uncle’s sister. Fortunately for both my uncle and me, his last name differed from ours. I never gave away the connection except to my uncle on his daily trip downstairs, Cuban cigar in hand, to meet and greet customers.
“Timmy Bridford’s name was on the forger list today,” I whispered.
He nodded. “Okay. Thanks for telling me, but let’s keep it between us.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, as uninterested as my uncle in revealing my relationship to our family’s black sheep. Besides, we both knew Timmy would never try to cash a bad check in his uncle’s bank. More likely, he’d just stop by for a personal loan.
Following my obituary and crime sheet chores, I headed to my next task—distributing the day’s mail, which included trekking through three floors of offices where I exchanged pleasantries with everyone, and handed out a variety of letters and parcels. The rest of my mornings were spent filing or running errands for Kenny until 11:30 when I manned the switchboard during the lunch hour in place of the regular operator. I can still see the orange cords, blinking lights, and ‘talk’ and ‘ring’ keys, and vividly recall my initial fears of pulling the plug on some important person’s conversation. However, phone traffic tended to be light at lunchtime and I survived my first summer with only one disconnect to my credit. Fortunately, I never unplugged my uncle.
My lunch hour began at the end of switchboard duty. I’d scarf down the sandwich I’d brought from home and spend the rest of the hour meandering through the downtown stores eyeing all the clothes I couldn’t afford. On my return from lunch I’d spend the next two hours in the large steel vault in the basement, filing a year’s worth of closed out accounts. The tellers hated the basement vault. They also hated filing. This combination led to an annual accumulation of boxes upon boxes of yellowed 8-by-10 cardstock ledgers waiting for the summer help to arrive. I never understood the value of these ledgers and felt the bank could save a lot of time and money by burning them.
Like the tellers, I hated the chilly basement vault, except on hot summer days when the lack of air conditioning in the ancient bank building left everyone sweltering. If business was slow and the weather particularly steamy, an occasional teller would venture downstairs, closed-out ledgers in hand, hoping to cool down in the vault.
I, however, refused to reward their lazy behavior from the previous months. With a smile on my face, I would relieve them of their small stack of files, adding, “I’ll file those for you,” (grin, grin) “and save you the trouble. Besides,” I’d remind them, with a knowing nod, “it’s my job.”
Revenge, I learned, can be sweet, particularly when the thermometer and the humidity reach into the nineties.
My final task of the day after I finished running the adding machine to help the tellers balance, was to stamp the day’s mail with the appropriate amount of postage. The postage machine, technically a Pitney Bowes Postal Mail Meter Machine that I recently saw advertised on eBay for $250, resided on a table in the basement next to the vault, and jammed on a regular basis. I wouldn’t give two cents for it even today.
Janie Collins, who ran the machine in the non-summer months, explained the procedure I was to follow when the machine jammed. First and foremost, I was not to try and fix the problem, but rather to run upstairs and inform Mr. Wendell, the bank’s Vice-President and apparently the only person with sufficient mechanical knowledge to unjam the postage machine.
Mr. Wendell was a nice looking, middle-aged curmudgeon who seldom smiled, never engaged in small talk, and spoke only when spoken to and sometimes not even then. From what I could ascertain, he had two principal responsibilities at the bank—dealing with lawyers and fixing the postage machine. I dreaded having to deal with him, but, as Janie explained, rarely a day went by that the postage machine didn’t jam, so I had little choice.
Interacting with Mr. Wendell was even worse than I’d anticipated since he conveyed to me the feeling that he considered me the problem rather than the machine. After the first time or two of watching him restore the offending machine to proper working order, it seemed a pretty easy fix to me and I decided to ignore Janie’s warnings and handle the jamming on my own. The problem facing me, I realized, was twofold. If the machine performed perfectly, both Mr. Wendell and Janie would realize what I was doing. Janie would be upset at appearing incompetent, and Mr. Wendell would be upset that a teenage upstart was capable of handling his job. I solved the dilemma by unjamming the machine only half the time, but I think Mr. Wendell caught on.
“The machine’s not misbehaving as much as usual,” he muttered, on one of the days I’d decided to play by the rules and ask for his help.
I took a while to respond mostly because that was the longest sentence I’d ever heard Mr. Wendell utter. “I think it’s the weather,” I finally said, failing to offer any further explanation because I figured his distaste for extended conversation would keep him from asking what the weather had to do with it.
He nodded. “Maybe,” he said, giving his precious machine a light tap before heading back to his desk and the ever-present line of legal beagles.
In some ways I felt sorry for Mr. Wendell. The postage machine probably provided him with a welcome escape from boring discussions with uptight attorneys about probate issues and trust accounts. I felt a little guilty for depriving him of perhaps his only legitimate reprieve. On the other hand, maybe he preferred smart lawyers to know-it-all teenage girls. I wouldn’t know, this being my first bank job.