Bertine “Bunny” Nixon never expected any individual recognition. But a certain amount of service is going to bring attention.
Nixon, an emeritus board member at $1 billion asset Great Lakes Credit Union (GLCU) in Bannockburn, Ill., was inducted into the Illinois Credit Union League Hall of Fame, received the league’s 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award, and earned The Drum Major for Justice award, which is given to Waukegan, Ill., community members for their service in faith, business, and public life.
“The award was based on things I'd done in the community, starting from the days of civil rights,” says Nixon, who served on the GLCU board for more than 30 years before becoming an emeritus member. “Helping people is a passion for me.”
GLCU dedicated the lobby of its Waukegan branch to Nixon last year.
Her public service began well before she joined the credit union industry. Nixon was born in Atlanta and moved to Illinois when her father enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was assigned to Naval Station Great Lakes. Out of about 250 families on the base, Nixon says there were 12 Black families, adding that she didn’t know anything about discrimination because she wasn’t treated different than anyone else.
She realizes now that she was isolated from the real world in the early portion of her life and unaware of the discrimination in the world. That isolation ended when she went to Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.
“My childhood was integrated but predominately white, but I was never made to feel different or less than. My isolation had been from the cruel realities of the real world of the U.S.” Nixon says. “I got off the train and went where the school letter said go. I looked up and one sign said, ‘White,’ and one said, ‘Colored.’ That was my, ‘Hello, welcome to the world.’”
Nixon got involved in the civil rights movement on campus. She eventually left Fisk, found discrimination was also present at home, discovered she couldn’t get financing until she joined the credit union world, and did what she could to bring light to these issues.
Nixon, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Northeastern Illinois University, started her career as a court stenographer. She also worked as a health care administrator for a military command serving Navy and Marine active duty and reservists who were assigned more than 50 miles from a military medical/dental facility.
She retired as deputy technical director of a command of more than 125 military and civilian employees.
When she was asked to join the GLCU board, she didn’t know exactly what it meant but she “very much knew about credit unions. I was very passionate about them because the credit union was the only place that I found amenable to accommodating me.”
When she joined, the 15-member GLCU board was half military and half civilian. It eventually was resized to a nine-member civilian board.
Nixon, who also became the president of a small credit union for Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church, has seen growth, threats of GLCU closing, and the Navy consolidating all training to Naval Station Great Lakes.
“Some of the biggest challenges serving on the board many years ago was surviving and making the decision to switch to becoming a community credit union,” she says. “That was driven by all the changes going on within the Department of Defense and the many threats of base closures and realigning missions. That was a huge undertaking, and the decision to expand into the community brought many challenges, which we overcame and have been successful.”
Nixon stepped down from the board because she believes boards shouldn’t be solely made up of retired people. She also believes new board members need to educate themselves on the mission of credit unions and not lose sight of that as they make decisions.
Furthermore, Nixon maintains the board should be made up of people from various backgrounds with a personal feel for the credit union.
“We used to have our annual meetings and I’d look out in the audience and see people out there that I've known in various walks of life,” she says. “I’ve never really thought about what drives me other than I get the satisfaction of making life better for somebody.”
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