WASHINGTON -- While it's clear that former CUNA leader Herb Wegner would almost certainly appreciate the awards named for him, one of his former employees is not entirely sure he would approve of them.
"I think Herb would have a little bit of an attitude of asking what all this was about since, from his point of view, he was always only just doing his job although very, very well," said Robert Schumacher, CEO of the $48 million Snohomish County PUD Credit Union and a frequent master of ceremonies at the annual Herb Wegner awards presentation.
Schumacher explained that Wegner had been his first boss at CUNA in 1977 and that he has provided a tremendous example to the awards now bearing his name and have come to recognize high credit union standards of both idealism and practicality.
Wegner served as the managing director, later president, of CUNA from 1971 to 1978. Under his leadership, CUNA and credit unions moved forward into many innovations and products that later credit union staff and members have come to take for granted. For example, credit unions took on the challenge of share draft accounts under Wegner's leadership, along with credit cards, ATM networks, a corporate credit union network, mortgage lending, individual retirement accounts, and the CUNA service group, among others.
Schumacher explained that Wegner had been a formidable leader, gifted at both having a vision for what credit unions could be and the leadership qualities to organize and pull people together to achieve that.
No one can remember exactly how the Wegner awards came to be named or how they were founded, but Schumacher and others long tied to the awards said they believed they have always been a function of the National Credit Union Foundation and have always had the mission of helping bring to light the unsung heroes of credit unions mission around the country and around the world.
Schumacher said he has served as master of ceremonies for seven or eight of a total of 20 annual awards programs, and will assume this role once again 2008. He counts himself as either lucky or blessed that the Wegner has never had any catastrophes during the times he has served as master of ceremonies. For example, so far at least, no awardees have been prevented from attending the dinner by Washington's weather, which tends to be dicey during the time of year when CUNA hosts the Governmental Affairs Conference, and problems have been restricted to the inconvenient and not the disastrous.
"Most of the sorts of technical difficulties we have seen have been on the audio-visual side," Schumacher said.
As master of ceremonies, Schumacher described his role as helping to guide the program along its two-and-a-half hour script. He noted he also has to keep his own reactions to the awards in-check since, as master of ceremonies, he is supposed to remain cool and aloof.
This proved extremely difficult during several different programs he has led. Last year's award to Carol Schillios, for example, proved difficult for Schumacher because he had known, worked with, and supported Schillios for years.
Schillios is a long-time credit union organizer, consultant, and advocate who has used her experience working with cooperatives to found a development foundation which she has used in turn to found the Fabric of Life Foundation, a economic and social development effort in West Africa, which has helped change the lives of women of Mali, Senegal, Zimbabwe, and Vietnam.
"I know I wasn't supposed to, but watching the video about the presentation really choked me up," Schumacher, who sits on the board of Schillios' foundation, said.
The Wegners don't carry any financial prize and Schumacher acknowledged that they could be misunderstood as little more than a sort of in-house feel-good party for the credit union industry. According to Schumacher and Kris Ackley, director of donor relations for the National Credit Union Foundation and one of the coordinators of the awards, what saves them from this is a solid commitment to finding and telling the stories of seemingly run-of-the-mill credit unions and credit union professionals who, without fanfare or fuss, do and accomplish extraordinary things.
"One of the things which comes through even from the application process is how much we rely on credit unions and credit union professionals to help us find candidates and make these award decisions," Ackley explained. "We count on people who know about us and what we do and what the awards represent to nominate the people they know about. Those people are often so completely absorbed in what they are trying to do and are so completely authentic in their efforts that they don't really recognize that anyone might find it remarkable that here is one person doing these things."
Schumacher told a funny story about a similar phenomenon with Schillios who even up to the eve of last year's awards had still not understood the impact the awards will have on their efforts. Finally, over the phone, Schumacher asked Schillios if she had run her name recently through the popular Internet search engine Google. Schillios, who was at a computer at the time, did so immediately and Schumacher chuckled as he recalled the shock he heard in her voice over the phone line as links to page after page about her and her work appeared on the screen.
"Oh, my God," Schillios said. "Oh my God."
One of the axioms about credit unions is their inability sometimes to tell their own stories and to relate to the broader world what exactly it is that they are doing and what they are about. The Herb Wegner Awards, Ackley said, are one more way for credit unions to be able to do that and, as such, will likely continue to be an important part of the credit union industry for the next 20 years.