On Sunday July 21, 2008, the credit union movement lost a great leader and many of us lost a close friend with the passing of J. Raymond Curtin of Syracuse, N.Y. Ray was the CEO of Empire Federal Credit Union in Syracuse and, with John Wakefield of Power FCU, engineered the merger of those two credit unions into the present-day Empower FCU, which is currently a thriving and growing CU headed by Wakefield.

All of us who knew Ray were blessed to have a friend, because Ray wanted it that way. He was a caring professional who made the work day fun for his staff and every meeting fun for all those involved. His former and long-time assistant Kelly Sherman tearfully called him her best boss ever when I spoke to her on Monday and shared a great relationship with Ray. Despite a very productive and professional relationship, Ray would tease her constantly. Although I knew her for years, he would introduce her to me when I visited the office as Shelly, or Kelly, or whatever, and then say, “Hey it doesn’t matter, she won’t be here long!” All the while both of them would be laughing out loud.

At our New York CEO round table meetings, Ray was the control mechanism on just about anyone’s ego’s when they got emotional, saying “Tell us how you really feel” or when they got to be a bit of a know-it-all saying, “We don’t really listen to you anyway.” He always had a perfectly timed line or comment that would crack the tension and bring the group back to earth, but he never overdid that so as to compromise his professionalism. Rather, Ray was a great mix of fun and professional!

Ray understood how important the volunteers were to his and all credit unions. Back when I was on the NAFCU Board and I would be very busy at conferences, Ray would constantly tease me in front of my board by saying things like, “Don’t worry–Mike is a little to busy–he asked me to take care of his board members for him.” And I know that those digs made be a better CEO and a better caretaker of my board. He was sending both my board and I a message at the same time. It was just how Ray did things. And I know he didn’t do that just to me, but he graciously extended his teasing to everyone with one consistent message. Work hard, do good for others, and don’t start thinking too much of yourself or taking yourself too seriously or someone is going to get you.

Despite banking roots, Ray quickly became a great industry person. He was a league chapter president, a loyal NAFCU member and testified on behalf of all of our CUs before Congress. He was never shy to ask for help when he was a new executive and never shy to offer help as he gained experience.

Ray Curtin was a believer that everyone was important. He was a wonderful father and husband and a great friend. He took care of himself, riding his bike about 20 miles per day and playing basketball and golf regularly. He touched everyone that knew him by making them smile and by making them feel good about themselves. If we are looking for role models in the credit union profession, and in life, taking a good clear look at Ray Curtin would be a great place to start. Those of us who were lucky enough to know Ray are better for it, and we will miss him very much and will never forget him.

Mike Vadala
The Summit FCU
Rochester, N.Y.