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08/06/2012 @ 9:27am

In 1498, a man in Italy wrote a letter of recommendation.  It read, “I, Jacopo Galli, do promise that Michelangelo will complete said work within one year, and that it shall be more beautiful than any work in marble to be seen in Rome today, and such that no master of our time shall be able to produce a better.”

Pretty sweeping statement, especially since at that time Michelangelo wasn’t known as the greatest sculptor in history, he was just a 24-year-old guy trying to get started in a profession in which competition was tough and success was uncertain.  

So who was Jacopo Galli to go so far out on a limb?  He was Michelangelo’s banker. Putting his mouth and his money behind a young man not only changed Michelangelo’s life, it changed the lives of everyone who appreciates great art.

What brought this to mind?  Our local bank has been sold.

It makes me a little sad.  There are fewer and fewer independent banks these days and that’s a pity.  It seems to be the way the world works now; small businesses - and not so small businesses - end up being part of something much larger.

Bankers are a little like lawyers.  It’s easy to make them into the punch line of the latest joke, and some of them deserve it.   But just as a good lawyer adds clarity and transparency to business dealings, a good bank and banker makes the wheels turn, helps people make their dreams a reality.  And for over a century, the small town where I live has had a good bank and a succession of good bankers.

In 1975 when we were newly married, my wife went to our bank to negotiate a $2,500.00 loan for a 1972 Chevy Vega.  Our previous vehicle had collapsed in a pool of rust and I had a steady paycheck coming in, so it seemed like the thing to do, even though neither of us had ever before borrowed money.  The banker seemed amused that we had no actual collateral, but still proposed to pay off the loan in four months, although we asked for six just to be careful.    As I said, neither of us had ever borrowed money and we figured that if you borrowed money the idea was to pay it back as quickly as possible.  We had a gig lined up baling flax straw, plus that steady paycheck, so we’d done the math and decided to put all the extra money into car payments. For the record, we did pay that loan back in four months.  

I wish I could say that set a trend, but that would be a lie.  It wasn’t long until the amount of money we owed the bank stretched several digits more than that original loan, and it took a lot longer than four months to pay it off.  I’m pretty sure there were years that our banker was considerably less amused by our plans, but he never stopped listening and if he ever lost faith in us, he kept it to himself.

Not everyone will agree with this column.  Sometimes bankers have to say no, and sometimes they’re wrong, which causes hard feelings.  On the other hand, my town is a wonderful place to live and a good portion of the reason is that for over 100 years, we’ve had a very good bank.

The new owners say nothing much will change.  The same people will stay on and, after all, the people are what make a business, not the name over the door.  For the past four decades, every time I went through that door, those people have made me feel welcome.  They were a part of making some of my dreams come true and a part of cleaning up the mess when things didn’t work out.


Copyright 2011 Brent Olson

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