Now approaching age 90, William Armstrong helped found Elizabethton (Tenn.) Teachers Credit Union in 1952—Northeast Community Credit Union since 1996—and has volunteered ever since as a board member, serving on nearly every committee for the $96 million asset institution.
He even served as a part-time bookkeeper at the credit union when needed. CEO Kathy Campbell calls Armstrong a true hero for the credit union movement.
“He’s eager to adopt new technology, has an open mind for new products and services, and stands as a pillar of wisdom and knowledge for our credit union,” she says. “On a personal note, I’ve worked at the credit union for 34 years, serving under his leadership, and I have never heard him be critical or say an unkind word.”
Armstrong volunteers because “when something is important to you, you’ll find the time for it,” he says. “Also, we’ve been fortunate to have great, family oriented managers who work closely with me and other volunteers to schedule meetings and training around our family lives, jobs, and other responsibilities.”
In 1952, Armstrong was a young teacher, married, and, like his fellow educators, struggling financially. A visitor from the Tennessee Credit Union League talked to him and several other teachers about starting a credit union, and they approached the superintendent of schools.
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“I could envision a need for all of us to have a trusted place to borrow money and to save when possible,” Armstrong remembers. “The superintendent not only approved of the idea, he offered us the services of his secretary as our first credit union bookkeeper and manager.”
The credit union improved the quality of life for educators and was beneficial to the entire community. Elizabethton’s industrial plants had grown considerably during World War II, leading to a population increase and a need for more teachers. The benefits of credit union membership proved to be a good recruiting tool for local schools.
Armstrong and the other founding members developed a mail-order catalog system that allowed teachers to borrow money to buy goods at discounted prices and make payments through payroll deduction.
“This was a very important benefit of membership, as few teachers could afford up-front expenses for things their families needed,” Armstrong explains. “Also, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to find a loan source with a payback schedule built around teacher paydays.”
What began as a ledger-card operation in the school administration building’s basement now has four locations and nearly 40 employees. While Northeast Community and the credit union movement at large have grown and evolved based on members’ needs, the original mission hasn’t changed.
“At our most basic level, credit unions are still focused on one person finding ways to help another person as part of the cooperative relationship we maintain with one another,” he says.
That involves using all available resources, including financial counseling, to help members succeed. “Our volunteers and staff have respect for our members and we try to understand their particular circumstances,” he says. “Then we can constructively work with them toward good solutions.”
Many times, Armstrong says, the credit union comes up with “a plan to help keep someone’s head above water. Other times, it’s looking for a loan product with terms uniquely suited to their financial challenges. We really are a people’s credit union.”