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Credit unions and those involved with them love to give out awards. There are so many credit union award ceremonies these days that some elicit little more than a yawn and polite applause from audiences. And scant attention from the media. Has any chairman of any credit union organization, even those who did a less than mediocre job holding the gavel, ever departed without some sort of memento under his or her arm? In some national CU groups, an individual need only serve a term on the board to get into that organization’s so-called prestigious hall of fame, even if that board member did absolutely nothing worthwhile while on the board. Among all this backslapping, however, there are some awards that are very special and meaningful. These are the ones that cause a genuine tear by the recipient, as well as those on hand to share the moment. They are the ones that cause audiences to applaud enthusiastically and swell up with pride. They are the ones handed out very sparingly and only after recipients have met a rigorous set of criteria. Because I was in the building for a series of meetings with several CUNA Mutual executives, I personally witnessed such an event the other day in the CUNA Mutual Group’s (CMG) atrium in their impressive facility in Madison, Wisconsin. Mike Kitchen, CMG’s CEO since 1995 when he moved here from Canada, has been involved in hundreds of award presentations. This time was different. He was on the receiving end of the praise and plaudits. And although he, like most CEOs, doesn’t like surprises, he had no clue that he was the guest of honor until a well-orchestrated ceremony began to unfold before his eyes You had to be there. At 10:00 a.m. hundreds of employees wearing patriotic T-shirts took a seat in the atrium, or nestled into position at one of the five floors of balconies for a bird’s eye view of what was to take place at a staging area erected on the first floor. There were American flags everywhere including all across the front of the property. There were signs (my favorite: “Way To Go Mike”) of congratulations, red, white, and blue bunting on every balcony, and confetti, too. There was group singing of patriotic songs helped along by a very accomplished Middle School band and a talented choir made up of CMG employees. There was an emcee and two speakers who said all the right things and said them well. And then there was CEO Mike Kitchen. Sitting quietly off to the side with an American flag in hand, he looked like a deer caught in the headlights except deer don’t get emotional. Very quickly it became clear to Kitchen that the event billed as “CUNA Mutual Celebrates America” was all of that for sure, but much, much more. It was also a special recognition by the CUNA Mutual “family” (Kitchen’s word) of what Mike Kitchen has accomplished on behalf of credit unions throughout the world and how that accomplishment was recently recognized at the highest level. This was definitely not just another “attaboy” plaque ceremony. This was Loretta Burd, the incoming CMG chairperson and CEO of Centra Credit union in Columbus, Indiana, recognizing Mike’s accomplishments from the viewpoint of his elected volunteer board. This was a proclamation from the governor of Wisconsin declaring the following Saturday “Mike Kitchen Day” in Wisconsin. This was recognition of Kitchen by top political leaders in the city and state. This was a book full of personal notes and letters of congratulations and praise from CMG staffers, credit union leadership, and assorted dignitaries outside of the CU world. This was Kitchen being told he would receive a United States flag that would be flown over the U.S. Capitol on the very day he would be on Ellis Island in New York City’s harbor to receive one of the nation’s highest awards, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. Not bad for a Canadian citizen who, along with family members, very quietly became citizens of the United States last November and now have dual citizenship. For the very first time, here’s a credit union guy joining the distinguished list of past recipients that includes such dignitaries as former Presidents of the USA, business executives like Lee Iacocca, sports legends like Joe DiMaggio, TV journalists like Walter Cronkite, entertainers like Bob Hope, and military icons like General Norman Schwartzkopf. When Kitchen’s turn at the lectern came, he received a legitimate standing ovation. His response was simple and gracious. It went something like this: I’m proud to be an American citizen and I’m proud to be part of the credit union movement. I accept all of this on behalf of the CUNA Mutual family and all the great credit union people everywhere helping people achieve a better life. Probably like many who witnessed an emotional Mike Kitchen express his appreciation, I came away happy for Kitchen of course. But I guess what impressed me as much as anything was that the achievements of this one credit union leader put credit unions in the national spotlight. By recognizing Kitchen, credit unions were showcased as organizations that have the potential to help all US citizens up and down the socio-economic scale. It sometimes seems that almost everyday credit union people somewhere are recognizing each other with some type of award. But this one is different. Kitchen’s national recognition outside of the credit union world sends a solid message to millions of leaders and ordinary folks who may have little if any connection to credit unions that CUs can and have accomplished a great deal of good. Comments? Call 1-800-345-9936, Ext. 15, or Fax 561-683-8514, or E-mail [email protected]

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Peter Westerman

Credit Union Times

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