Sunday, November 23, 2008

1972: An "Old Pro" led recovery

(Part of a series)

By Robert Edwin Field

It was June, 1972, and a large part of the greater Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania valley had been flooded by the overflow of the Susquehanna River as a result of a Hurricane Agnes. The two story Gateway Apartments in nearby Edwardsville had been immersed to attic level and all of the 264 units were covered with inches of river mud. Furnishing, along with the interior of the apartments, had been soaked, contaminated and destroyed.

Three days after the water subsided and while downtown was still cordoned off by the National Guard, two men, one in his sixties and the other in his thirties, entered the First National Bank of North East Pennsylvania in disregard to the 'closed' sign on the door. There they found, pushing a broom, Tom Kiley, in his late sixties, the President and CEO of the bank.

Kiley was wearing work clothes and helping employees to restore bank operations. This main branch had also been flooded. His bank held the mortgage on a portion of the apartment complex.

"Hi Henry. Hi Robert. How are things over at Gateway? What are you fellows doing?" came the upbeat voice from Kiley as he led them into his office. They explained that eighty persons were at work cleaning out the apartments, safeguarding tenant valuables, and preventing the property from rotting due to the high summer temperatures

"That’s the way to go! … Say, you fellows will need money to cover payroll. Will fifty-thousand get you going? I can fill out a note right now and we’ll deposit the funds to your account. Let us know as you need more."

This from banker who had most of his bank branches under water! He didn’t bemoan the situation. He wasn’t paralyzed by fear. And he didn’t hesitate.

Kiley had lived through an earlier flood and the Great Depression. He understood that emergencies called for interim actions, even before permanent solutions could be envisioned. He had confidence that over time he could successfully deal with the major problems.

Kiley's courageous leadership in the face of his bank’s own dire situation not only helped save the bank’s clients but further served the community by setting an example for others.

However, the 'boy wonder' president of the rival local bank across the street either vacillated in extending help or was unable to bring along his board of directors, to his and his bank’s shame.

The bankers were both good men. But at that time, only one had the experience, the judgment, the courage and the confidence of his board. Unlike Tom Kiley, the younger banker was navigating uncharted and scary waters. But the younger man learned from experience and, over time, he too became an important and worthy community leader.