Heading through the Beltway traffic on my way to the NCUA offices in Alexandria, Va., as the acting chairman of the agency on Sept. 11, 2001, I learned from radio reports that two of the World Trade Center towers had been hit by commercial jets–obviously no coincidence. But the far-reaching aspects of that day were brought even more to bear when I walked into my offices that Tuesday morning to see the smoke rising outside my windows that faced the Pentagon.
The truly sickening feeling of being an eye witness to a stunning piece of history and the reality of a great nation under attack was literally all around us as we brought scheduled meetings to an abrupt halt and the leadership team at NCUA chose to send the bulk of our staff home, if they wanted to go, or remain in the NCUA headquarters if they felt safer there.
With loss of life mounting in both New York and Washington (as well as in Pennsylvania by noon of that day), most had rightfully elected to go home by mid-day to be with their families as a small handful of us stayed at headquarters until we had accounted for every NCUA employee in New York and Washington as well as the status of credit union employees in branches in and near the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
All NCUA staff and credit union personnel were safe and accounted for. But we knew that our nation was hurting and undoubtedly would be quite different going forward after this unprovoked and unanticipated attack on our homeland. Regulation was about to change big time in the financial services industry, and we were to join our fellow regulatory agencies in the forefront of it.
Incidentally, it was in the following days that one of the greatest honors of my professional life occurred, and it was directly related to the events of Sept. 11. I had been in regular contact with the White House for several months in hopes of having the president step up my official title one grade from acting chairman to permanent NCUA chairman. While we knew that President Bush was very favorable to the possibility of that move for me, we had no assurance that it would happen and, if so, when.
Then, on Sept. 13, in an effort to make a statement to the nation that–although the terrorists had hit at the heart of our nation’s financial district at the World Trade Center–the financial institutions of the United States were still safe, sound and in solid hands. He announced six appointments that day in order to help make his point, all of which were in the financial services regulatory arena. One of them was a new permanent chairman at NCUA. I was so honored to be that chairman.
I never walk into my office, either during my years at NCUA or in the years following, past my own personal framed copy of the president’s signature dated Sept. 13, 2001, designating me to serve as NCUA chairman without a moment of pause to remember what the nation was going through in those days, how important instilling confidence in the financial system was at that particular time and how credit unions should be proud to have been recognized as a part of that presidential message of confidence when the chairmanship of their regulatory agency was designated by the president just two days after Sept. 11.
In the year of this 10-year memorial, we should all pause and our hearts should remember Sept. 11, the lives that were lost and the heroes that were discovered that bright fall day. It brought out, even if it did not last as long as many of us would have hoped, the absolute best in America–an America without partisanship, region, race or religion driving our actions. We pulled together and stood tall as a nation.
And America’s credit unions stood tall as well. From unlimited ATM withdrawals for firefighters in New York to shared branching meeting the needs of displaced travelers nationwide, credit unions stepped into the breach.
As I visited Ground Zero just 10 days later as a representative of the administration and met with the credit union leaders that were stepping up to meet financial needs at an incredibly stressful time for many of their members, I realized then and still feel today that credit unions–as an industry–can be proud of our role in America’s recovery from this most pivotal moment of national challenge in the lifetime of many of us.
Dennis Dollar is principal partner at Dollar Associates LLC.