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TUCSON, Ariz. – Anyone trying to get a hold of Alwin “Rusty” Girdner at home these days is taking a big chance of reaching him. After all, we’re talking about a man who loves to travel and has visited 97 countries including the 83 he’s traveled to since retiring from the credit union world 17 years ago. The former Tennessee Credit Union League president/CEO says his love of travel and appreciation for different cultures was seeded at an early age while growing up on a Navajo reservation in Northern Arizona. With his father being a missionary, Girdner and his family were the only white people on the northeast corner of the reservation located on the New Mexico/Utah border. “Growing up with two entirely different cultures gave me a broader view of life and taught me that ours isn’t the only way,” says the now-82 year old Girdner who learned to speak Navajo when he was a small child almost simultaneously to learning to speak English. As a child, Girdner said he was friends with many Navajo children. But he explained that since the Navajo are a nomadic people and their children were out herding sheep by the time they were six years old, “I’d see them when they were living near the mission, but then six or eight months would go by when they’d be living in the mountains when I didn’t see them. Sometimes thinking about it is like a 100 years ago.” Actually, Girdner has been writing a book about his experiences growing up on the reservation since he retired in 1988. So far he’s completed about 150 pages on The Reservation Days. “I have many very happy memories growing up on the reservation. They all come back to me when I write about it, even stuff that happened to me when I was two or three years old,” he says. Writing and editing his book “is incredibly time consuming,” says Girdner, and he’s been encouraged along the way by his family and friends. He’s been using the resources of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and perused through their photo collection. Girdner says looking through the photos brings back a lot of memories for him. Girdner lived on the Navajo reservation until he was 15 when he left to attend a Navajo mission boarding high school in New Mexico. He stayed there awhile and then was moved to his grandfather’s ranch in Central Arizona where he finished high school. It was during those high school years, he said, that he gained the nickname “Rusty” because of his head full of red hair which Girdner quips “there’s not so much left of anymore.” He eventually went on to graduate from the University of Arizona in Tucson with a B.A. in business administration and Master’s degree in history. Girdner admits that even after he moved off the Navajo reservation and for some time after that, “it took me many years to really be at ease in the Anglo population. There were certain behaviors I had that my mother put a stop to, but other things that I still have problems with even now.” For example, he explains, in the Navajo culture it’s considered a sign of hostility if you look a person straight in the eye. In the white culture though, “people think I’m being shifty if I don’t. It’s been a handicap for me all my life.” So how did Girdner come from growing up on a Navajo reservation to working with credit unions? After graduating from college, he moved to Camden, New Jersey – “a long way from the reservation” – to work at RCA and joined their credit union. So he got an inkling of what belonging to a credit union was about. When he moved to Dallas, Texas, he got to talking with his neighbor T.R. Thomas who at the time worked for the Texas Credit Union League. “All he’d talk about was credit unions,” Girdner recalls. When a credit union was trying to be formed in Monterey, Thomas invited Girdner to come with him. “Tommy made a big pitch to them about credit unions, and by the time we got home I knew all about them,” Girdner says. When Thomas’ assistant in the League’s education department gave notice, Girdner applied for the job and wound up working with the Texas League for three years. Thomas left the Texas League to work as the managing director for the New Mexico Credit Union League – their only employee at the time. “He called and asked me if I wanted to be the other half of the League staff,” says Girdner.” That was in 1958. When Thomas left the New Mexico League to attend law school, “I got bumped up to the top half,” says Girdner. He wound up leaving in 1973 to head up the Tennessee Credit Union League where he worked until 1988 when he retired. Girdner is back living in Arizona, about 300 miles from the Navajo reservation he grew up on. His wife Marjorie of 58 years – and his favorite travel partner – died in February 2005. His four children live in New Mexico – his two sons in Sante Fe and his daughters – one of whom works for First Financial CU as VP of human development – live in Albuquerque. He also has eight grandchildren. An avid traveler, Girdner is an associate member of the Century Club and will become a full fledge member when he hits the 100-country visited mark. So far he’s been to every continent except Antarctica, and the only two countries in Europe he hasn’t visited yet are Romania and Liechtenstein. Asked which are the most interesting countries he visited, he says “the next one.” But he’s quicker to specify countries he’s visited and considers the most exciting. They include those in West Africa such as Senegal, Ghana, Togo and Namibia. “People who don’t travel and see other cultures really miss out on so many things,” says Girdner. “It limits their perspectives.” At press time, Girdner was getting ready for another trip, this one with his grandson to the Western Caribbean. Friends of Rusty Girdner can reach him at (520)-577-6683. -

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