MADISON, Wis. – Growing up on a farm and watching her father work for and buy feed and farm supplies from cooperatives, literally shaped one credit union CEO’s foray into the movement. Joyce Harris, 69, retired as president/CEO of Heartland Credit Union on June 30 after 23 years of service and blazing a trail that few women even today have achieved: she is the first and only woman to serve as chairman of the Wisconsin Credit Union League, and from 1991 to 1994 she was the only credit union representative to serve on the Federal Reserve Board’s Consumer Advisory Council, a committee that met with Chairman Alan Greenspan on consumer financial issues. After a full and satisfying career, Harris is looking forward to spending more time with her three sisters who live close by and helping her husband tend to their farm with space for “lots of flowers and a garden.” The most pressing decision they expect to make over the new few months is how many Black Angus cattle they want to buy, she joked. It seemed fitting that Harris’ beginnings in her hometown of Mineral Point, a picturesque town 45 miles southwest of Madison that got its start in the 1820s when prospectors swarmed the area after learning lead was discovered here, would propel her as an advocate for the mission of cooperatives. “She lives and breathes credit unions,” said Sally Dischler, Heartland’s incoming president/CEO. “She had a favorite saying: working at the credit union wasn’t work, it was a way of life. And, she genuinely lived this type of ethic.” Dischler gives an enormous amount of credit to Harris for the transition to her new role at Heartland. She came to the credit union in 1977 as a loan processor when Harris was hired six months later. Since then, she’s been a mentor and a life-long friend. Before working for a credit union, Harris spent the first 23 years of her professional career as a retail accountant for a grocery cooperative, with Farm Credit Services and as an accountant for a law firm before becoming vice president of the University of Wisconsin Credit Union in 1971. “I was very happy there,” Harris recalled when she got a call in 1978 from the board of what was then Madison Telco Credit Union asking is if she would come aboard as president/CEO to clean up the credit union’s bookkeeping problems. Harris decided to make the move to Madison Telco, discovering she had her work cut out for her with improperly balanced books and low reserves. “In the beginning, there were times we would work through the night with just ledger cards,” Harris said, “I remember seeing the sun coming over the lake many times.” While Harris and her small staff worked around the clock getting the books in order, three months after her arrival, the credit union’s system was converted to CUNA’s, members now had access to a share draft program and a new branch opened in Eau Claire. Like many community credit unions, Heartland has seen its field of membership expand. It was originally chartered as Wisconsin Telephone Company Credit Union in 1936 to serve telephone and communications-related industries. Its name was later changed to Madison Telco Credit Union, but with the break-up of AT&T in 1981, the charter was expanded to provide membership to anyone living or working in Dane County and thus became Telco Community Credit Union. In 1987, the credit union merged with Grant County Employees Credit Union in Lancaster and began serving anyone living or working in Grant County. Seven years later, when the credit union opened a branch in Dodgeville, communities throughout the southwestern part of Wisconsin were now being served. It was in 1996 that the board of directors and members voted to change the name to Heartland Credit Union. During Harris’ tenure, the credit union has changed its name four times, grown from $5 million to $82 million in assets, 15,000 members and seven branches. Members would have access to home banking, electronic bill payments and other innovative technologies. It was this pioneering spirit that kept Harris closely connected to the pulse of members’ needs, said Mark Schroeder, president/CEO of Wisconsin Corporate Central Credit Union (WCCCU). “When other credit unions were just talking about bill payment, Heartland had it in place,” Schroeder said. “Even though she was actively involved nationally, had an excellent grasp of the big political picture, she stayed very focused on her credit union. “Schroeder has known Harris for 18 years but began working closely with her in 1990 when he became WCCCU’s president and CEO. During her career, she has served on its board and as an officer. “On our board she was a very vocal advocate of smaller credit unions,” Schroeder said. She also served as director of the Madison chapter of credit unions for four years, a director at CUNA from 1986 to 1992 and in 1995 helped to restructure the organization through a renewal project committee. In her home state, she is the only woman to be appointed chairperson of the Wisconsin Credit Union League. Her affiliation with CUES dates back to 1973. Over the years, she’s served on its national board, was named CUES Executive of the Year in 1989 and inducted into the organization’s hall of fame the following year. Despite her full plate, she was never too busy to exude a “warm and friendly disposition,” said Barb Kachelski, CUES senior vice president of membership and CIO. “I had the chance to talk and work with her many times and she’s very down-to-earth and always had a familial rapport with her staff,” Kachelski said. Mary Dunn, CUNA associate general counsel and senior vice president agrees with how Harris has the uncanny ability to express her point of view on an issue in such a way that convinces others of her strong commitment to that issue. Dunn calls Harris “one of my favorite people in the world” and a “role model.” “She never presents a disagreement in a way that personalizes it or takes away from its focus,” Dunn said. “Her strength lies in her graciousness to be a champion for credit unions and her ability to build support around issues that are important to the industry.” Indeed, because of Harris and others, CUNA’s Renaissance Commission has placed more emphasis on member business loans, Dunn said. The more than 300 people who attended Harris’ retirement party in June expressed their love and adoration through heartfelt letters, songs and a video presentation highlighting her career. “It was overwhelming and just beautiful,” Harris recalled. Since retiring, she hasn’t wasted anytime pursuing one of her passions- gardening- a trait she says she inherited from her mother. While she helps her husband, Bill of 50 years, tend to cattle and oversee their 40 acres, they both look forward to spending more time with their host of nieces and nephews – great and great, great. At Heartland, she is most proud of the array of services members had access to including its strong agricultural lending and the opportunity to work with “a good board and a good group of people.” Asked what she would like to be remembered for in the movement, Harris said helping to reinforce the cooperative philosophy among credit unions. “We hear it all the time but credit unions are truly about people helping people,” she said. “A lot of credit unions don’t realize that they are cooperatives and I’ve tried to emphasize that tenet throughout my career.” [email protected]

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