tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Old-timer from Central Minnesota shares stories

John Owen Bohmer is an 84-year-old gentleman living in the central Minnesota community of Brooten. He is chairman of the Bonanza Valley State Bank there; he was president of the modest bank from 1954 to 2000.

I had a chance to meet Bohmer last spring when he presented me with a copy of a book he had written to commemorate the bank’s centennial anniversary in 1994. The book is called: “Your Friendly Hometown Banker.”

“I wrote it in 19 days in our motor home in Arizona while it rained outside,” he said. Bohmer is the author of six books, including a book he wrote for the bank’s 60th anniversary.

The book is a collection of 83 short stories or reflections. Bohmer writes about growing up during the Great Depression, about farming in the early 20th century, about being a banker in a small town and about a number of other things that I found interesting. I am an advocate of ordinary people writing down their personal stories for the benefit of peers and future generations. This is what Bohmer has done.

I want to share a few of the gems I discovered in “Your Friendly Hometown Banker.”


For many years, we cooperated with the school in training a senior boy or girl in the bank, and then when the training period was over and after graduation, we would help them find a job in another bank.

The first thing we did to get them acquainted was to introduce them to the staff, show them where they would be working, and what they would be doing, and then sit down and have a talk.

The talk consisted of being polite to customers, about correcting mistakes, about being careful with names, among other things, and about confidentiality.

If there is anything people want confidential more than their personal life, or their church or school problems, it is their financial matters.

I always told the employees that when they leave the bank premises, they must leave their “bank knowledge” behind them. I have a permanent sign in the back bookkeeping room that says: “Warning: When you leave this bank, leave your knowledge here. Failure to do so will result in your immediate dismissal.”

People are inquisitive, and if one of the employees is out for the evening, he or she may be questioned about one of our customers. It may be hard to say “no” in certain cases, so I give them a good excuse. I say: “Just tell them if they want to know the answer, they should ask John Bohmer.” That is the end of that, as nobody has ever asked me.

We hired a brilliant young girl from school, a local girl who started in the fall when school started, and worked faithfully every afternoon for an hour and a half like we required. This went on all during the fall and winter, and sometime during spring a local businessman came to me and said: “How come so and so knows how much money I have in the bank?”

I was taken by surprise, as this had never happened before. After discussing it further, and looking into it, I determined that the leak came from the girl.

That afternoon when the girl came to work, I called her into my office to discuss it with her. She immediately began crying and told me her mother made her tell how much money was in that account.

How low can a mother get? To sabotage her own daughter is unthinkable. I had no choice but to let her go. I’m quite sure that if I could have kept her she would have been an excellent employee after she had learned her lesson.

She was so ashamed of herself that she never again came into the bank, and went out of her way to avoid meeting me on the street. After graduation she left town, and I haven’t seen her since. What a pity.

Counter Checks

Why carry a book of check blanks along with you? Not necessary. Every filling station, and store had a supply of “counter check” laying around which you could use to pay your bills or get some cash.

Counter checks are just a piece of paper printed with the necessary blanks just like regular checks. They were originally intended to be used on the check counter at the bank, and that’s where they got their name. A handy way for you to withdraw a little cash while in the bank if you forgot your checkbook at home.

Because of lax rules, the counter checks spread in popularity to the point that our counter checks were in other business places and in other towns, and we had checks in our bank from other banks in other towns. In fact, we had counter checks on hand from all the surrounding banks.

You can imagine how tempting this situation would be for someone who was broke but had no account anywhere to just write out a check on any bank and get some cash.
As the morals of people have changed of the years, it has become necessary to eliminate the counter check.

Another drawback of the counter check was that the amount of the check probably did not get marked down in the stub of the regular checkbook, and soon there would be an overdraft of their account.

In this day and age, you must use your own check blanks, which have magnetic numbers of your bank, and of your personal account. Unless he gets one of your check blanks, the unscrupulous person cannot write a check on your account.

We had a flamboyant character that usually came to our auction sales years ago. He would buy some things and when it came time to pay for the items, he could say “fill out a counter check for the amount.” When the clerk asked on which bank, he would say “It doesn’t make any difference,” and he would be quite loud about this to be sure his friends would hear.

The clerk had all the local counter checks, so she would fill out a check on some out-of-the-way bank and he would sign it. The check was always good however, and we felt that he was trying to impress his friends to make them think he had lots of money in many banks.

What really happened is that he would drive to that town the next day, go to the bank and leave enough money to cover the check. What a character.

Growing old is not for sissies

Do you remember when you were five years old? There was that kid in first grade who was so much older and smarter than you were. Oh boy.

Then when you were a freshman in high school, how inferior you felt to the juniors and seniors. They hardly wanted to associate with you.

How about asking a girl out for a date that was a senior when you were only a junior? Fat chance!

Then when you get into your working life, you start all over again. You enter an arena where everyone is an expert except you. By this time however, most of your associates try to help you get going. You hope they are doing it so you will take on part of their workload.

Throughout your lifetime there is competition of one form or other. There is competition in sports, competition in business and competition for your favorite girl. There is competition between ages. The older person readily and easily competes with you when you are young, but later in life, you are that older person.

Competition is good for the soul. It keeps you on your toes, and it keeps you healthy in body and in mind. Everybody needs it.

As you grow older you become more confident in yourself, in your own values, and at the same time more tolerant of differences.

Young adulthood and middle age doesn’t leave much time to explore the heart and spirit; we’re too busy making a living, but as confidence grows, competition becomes less important, and it’s in the latter years of life that spiritual development becomes a reality. The older you get the more wisdom you acquire, but it’s hard to share that wisdom with a young man who doesn’t want to listen, but instead chooses to acquire it by experiencing his own hard knocks.

For people who keep an open mind to change and growth throughout their lives, the mature years are unexpectedly rewarding.

You can use every experience you have ever had, everything you have ever done or known, and use it better than you ever have used it before.

You were given two ends: One to sit on and
one to think with. Your future depends on which one you use the most.

Spit & Whittlers

The rate of unemployment in the 1930s during the Great Depression was up around 25 percent. It was no fun to sit around home all day, so [the unemployed] would come downtown and find a bench on Main Street where they could visit with their friends, and where they may be noticed by someone needing some help, where there was a possibility of getting a job.

To pass the time of day, they took up whittling. Everyone had a pocket knife that was kept razor sharp, and it was used to carve something out of wood. Usually it was used just to take a twig and carve off the bark, and then chop it into tiny pieces only to start on another one when that was finished.

When they were whittling, they were also smoking that pipe or chewing tobacco, and naturally they had to spit out the juice every once in a while. Brown juice it was. The aim was for across the sidewalk into the gutter in the street but it didn’t always make it that far. The bulk of it perhaps did, but the overspray colored the sidewalk.

It’s no wonder the merchants didn’t like them sitting in front of their establishment.
My grandfather heard a rumor at one time that our bank was going to be robbed. He immediately went to the lumber yard, had two benches built and put one on either side of the front door of the bank. He then invited the spit and whittlers over to the bank so they could be witnesses in the event the bank robbers did show up.

The robbers never came, or if they did, they probably didn’t like the looks of all those witnesses. In that respect, the spit and whittlers served the community well. We wonder if it was hard to get them to move away once the threat was past.

The Survivors

I did a little research recently and discovered some interesting information about survival and live expectancy of a new business.

For every 100 new businesses established in the United States, only 10 of them remain in business after one year, and only one will be in business at the end of 10 years.

This gives you some idea of how really tough it is to reach the age of 100. Some people say the race is to the swift, the risk-taker; but the ancient Greeks knew that steadiness of purpose over the long term is a surer path to success.

As bankers we’ve learned this lesson. Through the many periods of depression and bank failures over the years -- and there have been quite a few -- it’s the conservative banker that has survived the onslaughts, and the periods of roller-coaster economics that have occurred.

To roll with the punches and do what has to be done while at the same time serving your community in the best way possible is the ultimate goal for survival.


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