Fourth & Main Remembered

“The Friendly Bank”

I SAID GOODBYE TO A FRIEND TODAY one with which I had spent 43 years of my life.  It was a difficult thing to do, but it was necessary. For many months the media carried stories of the impending sale and demolition of the bank building at the corner of 4th Street and Main Street. It was not just a bank building.  It was the heart and soul of banking and finance for Royal Oak and the surrounding communities during those growing years.  Sometimes it was referred to as the big bank. Yes, it was the biggest, but our motto was “The Friendly Bank.”  The Ad Agencies can hang any label they wish on an organization, but it takes the dedication of all the employees and the management to live up to the friendly tag.  I believe that we did a fair job in that respect. So, before returning to Florida, after a few months visiting our northern family, I decided to bite the bullet and slowly walked into the lobby for that final farewell, that last look around before the jackhammers were summoned to do their duty.  The little green notices on the customer writing desk told the story,  ON SEPTEMBER 8, 2000 AT 1:00 PM, THIS OFFICE WILL CLOSE  I stood there by myself. There were few customers. The offices surrounding the lobby were all dark. Only a few tellers were at the far end of the teller lineup.  It was no surprise that there were no familiar faces left. I had retired in 1981, and this was a new generation of bankers.  

I looked around, the memories began to whirl in my mind. I was standing in the section that was the original bank lobby.  To my left was the spot where the Cashiers' desk was located. I remembered walking in between those towering columns and through the front door in 1938 to apply for the job of bank messenger.  The sign over the door read “Guardian Bank of Royal Oak.” I was a scared 18-year-old kid.  My mother had pressed my shirt and pants, made sure my tie was straight,  checked to see that my fingernails were clean, had patted down the persistent cowlick,  gave me a hug and assured me that everything was going to be just fine.  The Cashier (Lee Abrams) did the interviewing as he chewed on an unlit cigar and would periodically turn and let fly a stream of tobacco juice at a spittoon beside his desk.  The maintenance man had thoughtfully placed a rubber mat under it, and I could soon see why.  He was not noted for being a "straight shooter." He had other fine qualities though,  one of them being that he was an excellent judge of character. I was hired. Starting salary was $65.00 per month.  Wow! Great! I was on my way in the business world. At the time I didn't know that the messenger boy was the first one to arrive in the morning after picking up the bundle of clearing house checks at the train station and was about the last one to leave at night with the mail for the Post Office. No such thing as a 40 hour week.  The interview didn't take very long. There were no discussions about employee benefits.  Just a one-week vacation after the first year. There was no talk of profit sharing, stock options, 401K,  retirement benefits or hospitalization. There were none of these benefits.  The bank was open 6 days a week, and then we were expected to stay late for special events like putting out the checking account statements each month.  Another extra chore was the figuring and posting of interest on the savings accounts.  My hours would average about 50 per week. Let's see now, 50 hours per week equals 200 hours per month, at $65.00,  would end up being about 32 cents per hour. I learned over the years that bankers worked for prestige and respect.  

Too bad those are not accepted in payment of groceries and prescription drugs these days. Oh well, it has been a good life. As I glanced upward at the second-floor windows looking down into the lobby, I was reminded of my first promotion.  That was the location of our bookkeeping department, and I was one of four bookkeepers.  We worked with those High Keyboard Burroughs machines. In later years we included the NCR Postronics in the operation.  In those years the checking accounts did not have account numbers. We sorted and posted the checks and deposits to the accounts based on the signature alone. I learned early on that doctors were not the only ones that scribbled their names.  We were so happy when a new account opened with a legible account holder. Some signatures were truly works of art.  One of those was the signature of Ellis Berry. (The Rhubarb King of Michigan.) He put the Palmer method of penmanship to shame.  Some years later all of the checks were printed with funny shaped numbers called MICR. (Magnetic Ink Character Recognition)  No more hand sorting. The best thing since sliced bread. Our bank was one of the first with this innovation, and so our Board decided to place the large Pitney Bowes sorting machine in the middle of the customer lobby for all our customers to see in operation. Fortunately, this was just for a short time. In the 1940s and 1950s, Royal Oak and the surrounding communities were growing by leaps and bounds.  New branches were built which included drive-in windows. Our first drive-in was the Stephenson Office.  I was picked to research the design and operation, and this included a trip to Florida to see what those banks were doing.  I was named manager and worked there for ten years. It was some years before we were able to accommodate the mushrooming growth in the community adequately. There were times when a customer entering the 4th and Main Office would be confronted with a maze of lines of waiting customers. We did what we could to try and keep pace.  School teachers were hired as weekend tellers and for vacations. They were great people.  We also had a need for traffic control at most drive-in offices. Royal Oaks' Finest (Police) rose to the occasion. The 4th and Main Office went through many remodeling sessions. The escalator was one of the first in Oakland County.  

Through the years we acquired many of the surrounding businesses for our expansion.  The little bar next door, the Masonic Temple, the Savings & Loan at Main and 5th, the roller rink which was on the second floor.  Then there was the Auto Service building on Center and some small shops on 4th and Center streets.  Joe the Hatter was swept up along with a Beauty Shop and my favorite Barber Shop. That was where I took my son, Bud,  for his first haircut in 1949.1 had no way of knowing that my wife would never forgive me for having those golden curls shown.  The Al Lawson Sports Shop became part of our complex, and the Chamber of Commerce was housed in that building until parking became critical. Time for one last look around. To my right was the spot where the row of marble front,  brass grilled teller cages once stood. No robber could ever vault over these. It was in cage #3 that I received my teller training.  My instructor was Senior Teller, William Hayward, who just happened to be the mayor of Royal Oak at that time.  On the bank payday, I would take my pay in $1.00 bills and bring them home to practice counting. 

Time to say good-bye, Old Friend, You have had several nameplates over the years.  The Royal Oak Savings Bank, (before I knew you) Guardian Bank of Royal, (Gov. Groesbeck was the Main Man),  The Wayne Oakland Bank (under control of the C.S.Mott Foundation),  First of America Bank (Kalamazoo), and now it’s National City Bank.  You have stood the test of time. I salute you. It would be nice if a small portion of your structure could remain as a part of your glorious history, but if that is not to be, I know that you will go gracefully.  You will be in my thoughts. Progress may wrap its' Samson like arms around you and bring your pillars down, but you have served us well.

By Reynolds L. Smith