Lending a hand: Early days of credit union traces a city’s transformation

written by Kate Harrison Belz

Market Street, 1960    / William C. King. Courtesy of the Chattanooga History Center. (   via Picnooga   )

Market Street, 1960 / William C. King. Courtesy of the Chattanooga History Center. (via Picnooga)

Lunch break was only thirty minutes,

so Dick Swisher wanted to make the most of it. Since he and his father both worked downtown Chattanooga, the two had a weekly ritual of walking somewhere close by to eat together, taking turns paying for the meal. 

Downtown Chattanooga in the 1960s was busy, with heavy traffic and cramped parking.  Department stores and shops lined the streets, and the city’s major employers — including the Tennessee Valley Authority, where Dick worked — occupied the downtown corridor. Around lunchtime, workers spilled out of their offices into the nearby eateries like Home Plate or the luncheonette at Loveman’s Department Store. When it was Dick’s turn to buy, father and son usually ended up at the S&W Cafeteria on Market Street. When it was his dad’s turn, they often walked further up to Cherry Street for burgers at the Krystal. 

But that was only if they could make it down the street. As soon as the two were out on the sidewalk, a passerby would flag down Swisher’s father — named R.O. Swisher, but known as “Swish” — and ask about a possible or pending loan with the Chattanooga TVA Employees 

Federal Credit Union, where Swish worked as office manager. Swish would talk to the man for a while, promise to look into the loan, then head on his way — only to be approached minutes later by another person, also asking about borrowing money from the credit union. 

“I had 30 minutes for lunch and often he'd spent 30 minutes on the street just just talking to people about about their loan,” Dick Swisher said with a laugh, recalling those days. “But that's what he enjoyed doing. And at the same time, I was was very much in awe of his commitment and his willingness to take whatever amount of time was required to help these members with with their loan and with their money issues.”

The Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union — as the Chattanooga TVA Employees Federal  Credit Union was eventually renamed — is an institution almost as old as TVA itself.

Both were made possible by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who signed legislation creating the TVA in 1933. A year later, Roosevelt signed the Federal Credit Union Act into law, which allowed nonprofit, cooperative credit unions to be chartered under federal law as an alternative to banks.

In 1936, a group of 57 Chattanooga TVA employees decided to form their own credit union as a way to make credit more easily available to the employees of TVA. The group pooled $500, and kept the funds in a small lock box in a bottom desk drawer. Those who joined the credit union became “members”: each with equal ownership and voting powers when it came to electing a board. Volunteers handled the lending program. 

That cash box called some of Chattanooga’s most iconic downtown buildings home over the years. In its first two decades it occupied the Pound Building, the James building, and the Old Post Office. As the TVA grew and changed physical and economic landscape of the community, the credit union grew with it — weathering the end of the Great Depression and the wartime years. 

By the time Swish was brought on as the union’s first full-time office manager in 1954, the credit union had moved to an office in the Edney Building on 11th Street. During the postwar economic boom of the 1950s and early 1960s, more American families felt confident spending on credit. Loans from the credit union became hospital bills,  insurance premiums, college tuition, home and auto repairs; furniture, clothing and winter fuel. They turned into 1963 Chevrolet Impalas and 1971 Ford Mavericks. 

In Swish’s day, members wanting a loan filled out an application, which a credit committee would then approve or deny. But when the credit committee denied an application Swish thought should’ve been approved, he would often take matters into his own hands. He would slip the denied application back at the bottom of the committee’s stack, and when they unwittingly revisited the application again later in the day, they often approved it. He frequently co-signed loans himself when others wouldn’t, citing the low-risk: the borrowers were TVA career employees, who would be signing up for payroll deduction. In many cases, he knew them personally.

Years later, Dick Swisher would run into people who shared stories about his dad’s insistent helpfulness: They would apply for a $1,200 loan for a car, but Swish would press them to take $1,500 instead, just in case. If it was still too much, Swish would urge them to use the extra to take vacation with their family. 

Office staff of TVA Employees Federal Credit Union, late 1960s. R.O. Swisher center, top. 

Office staff of TVA Employees Federal Credit Union, late 1960s. R.O. Swisher center, top. 

“It was that sort of atmosphere that my father engendered,” said Dick Swisher. “He knew these people, and he liked them and he wanted to help them. And I think that's the atmosphere that existed in creating.”

Once a month, Swish would come home with a box of printed newsletters he had put together. His family would sit at the kitchen table and help him fold and stuff the letters into envelopes to send to all of the credit union members. 

Filled with interesting factoids, member updates, practical financial tips for different areas of life (annual college tuition in 1970: $1,500) and witticisms urging common-sense spending (“People get into debt to keep up with those who already are”), Swisher’s newsletters provided snapshots into the financial life and personality of the credit union as it evolved and helped members navigate holidays, economic crises, and changing technology. A 1969 newsletter warns about the risks of the “new credit card scheme,” and encourages members against impulse buying. 

One 1970 letter included a list of random facts called “Potpourri”: the list detailed the credit union’s $11 million assets, alongside the prediction that by 2000, “airbuses” would shuttle people from New York to London in 30 minutes. Another included a rhyme, under the title “Happy Little Tune”: “Here’s a song you can hum to yourself the next time you need extra money. The tune is “Home on the Range: Oh give me a loan — where the money’s our own — and the in’trest is never too high...where insurance is giv’n — in case I’m not livin’ — my kin folk won’t pay if I die.” 

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The 1973 newsletter describes a major highlight: the retirement party for Swish, where “over 500 people came by to wish ‘Swish’ the very best.” 

Over the years, annual newsletters and reports would continue to usher members through changing times as the credit union expanded outside the TVA in the 1980s; opened suburban branches as the downtown sector declined; opened its first ATM called “Capt’n Hoot”; changed its name in 1994; transitioned into online banking in the late 1990s;  prepared for Y2K in 1999; weathered the financial crisis in 2008; expanded and moved offices and downtown Chattanooga revived again; and during that entire time, continued to open branches throughout the region. By 2018, the credit union served 135,000 members across 13 counties.

Dick Swisher, who raised his own family in Chattanooga and served on the credit union board in the 1980s, has been able to witness the credit union’s transformation alongside the city’s. He still senses a spirit about the credit union that reminds him of his dad, and those early days. 

"I'm very proud of the contribution that my father made and the kind of person he was,” he said. “The idea of caring, and the commitment to solving issues … I'm very proud of it."

The “10 Commandments of Credit Union,” from 1963 TVA Employees Credit Union newsletter / Courtesy TVFCU 

The “10 Commandments of Credit Union,” from 1963 TVA Employees Credit Union newsletter / Courtesy TVFCU