During the Great Depression and the slow recovery following it, credit unions grew fast—from 8,036 credit unions and 2 million members in 1939, to 23,866 credit unions and nearly 22 million members by 1969, according to CUNA statistics.
Frank Matous Sr., former CEO of Tandem Federal Credit Union, in Warren, Mich., was a pioneer who contributed to that growth. He and five other Chrysler workers each deposited $10 to form Dodge Truck Forge and Amplex Federal Credit Union in 1941. Today, the credit union—renamed Tandem Federal in the late 1950s—has 3,137 members and $20 million in assets.
Matous grew up on a Nebraska farm, but moved to the Detroit area after the Depression to work at the Chrysler truck plant. He worked in the tool crib, keeping track of the tools workers used to build vehicles in support of the war effort.
Frank was elected treasurer/CEO of the fledgling credit union. He and the other charter members promoted the credit union to their co-workers.
“For the first several years, Dad carried the credit union with him into the plant in his satchel every day,” says his son, Phil Matous, president/CEO of $49 million asset Total Community Credit Union, Taylor, Mich. “The plant’s tool crib was the credit union office.”
On many Saturday nights during the credit union’s early days, members would visit the family’s apartment to withdraw money from their accounts for the weekend. The credit union safe was stored in a family closet. “Mom would cook chicken for board meetings at the apartment,” adds Phil.
A strong contributing factor to the start of the credit union, according to Phil and his brothers, Frank Jr., Stephen, and John, was the influence of Monsignor Clement Kern, then a Detroit priest who advocated for the city’s underserved population.
Later dubbed “Detroit’s priest,” Fr. Kern was a risk-taker, says Phil, “and he saw that same quality in Dad.” Many of the truck plant workers had checkered pasts and uncertain financial futures. Some were ex-convicts and ineligible for the armed services.
“My father had a strong feeling that people deserve a second chance,” says son Frank Matous Jr. “He really believed in the credit union motto, ‘not for profit, not for charity, but for service.’”
“He appreciated helping people; he got a big kick out of it,” adds Phil. “That provided a solid basis for the credit union.”
His legacy isn’t limited to starting a credit union and leading it for 45 years. All four Matous sons worked at Tandem Federal as youths and at other credit unions as adults.
“We were brought up with credit unions as toddlers,” says Phil. “We loved them, and they’ve been part of us from day one. We just have it in our blood, I guess.”
The kids helped out with everything from sharpening pencils as preteens to counting money as teenagers. Their father was proud that the boys followed in his footsteps.
He was also proud of the trust credit union members and co-workers placed in him. “Dad took pride in the fact that the plant guard never questioned what he had in the satchel when he walked in and out of the plant each day,” notes Phil.
Frank Sr. also helped organize and served on the boards of other Detroit-area credit unions. He was active in the early days of the Michigan Credit Union League and was inducted into the Northeast Chapter Hall of Fame in 1988. Just before he retired in 1985, the credit union’s capital ratio was about 22%. The credit union was strong because he was frugal, explains Phil.
Next: After retirement
After Frank’s retirement, he continued to serve as Tandem Federal’s treasurer of the board and went to the office three days a week until his health prevented it. He had the credit union on his mind until the day he died in 1989, of heart and kidney ailments, says Frank Jr.
Son Phil nominated Frank Sr. as a CU Hero because, “I wanted people to know that everyone can still make a difference if their heart is open to serving others. We need to have that same heart of service today. He was an example to us.
“We have to continue to realize that the American spirit of service and helping others still exists,” he continues, “especially through the credit union movement.”
What would his father think of credit unions today? There were big problems in the early ’40s just as there are today, says Phil.
A Heavyweight with Smarts
Frank Matous Sr., former CEO of Tandem Federal Credit Union, Warren, Mich., was a talented boxer. He was good enough to make it to the national Golden Gloves tournament in 1937, and he dreamed of fighting for the U.S. Olympic team. Unfortunately, a 104-degree fever prevented him from winning the tournament, and he never returned.
Originally a Nebraska farm boy, he had 11 siblings so he learned early to hold his own in the ring. As a youngster, he competed in boxing matches at county fairs. And when his family moved to Detroit, he competed in intramural matches as a heavyweight fighter.
“He had a great family,” says his son, Phil. Frank loved to hunt, fish, and camp, and continued those pursuits with his own boys. Phil remembers camping nearly every weekend, most summers, at Michigan state parks.
He also fixed things around the house, says Phil. “Plumbing, electrical…he just picked up those things.”
Frank Sr. could do just about anything he set his mind to, says Phil. “Dad only had a grade-school education—although he could have been a doctor if he’d gone on to school. He learned all the business practices on his own.”
“He’d probably tell us to roll with the punches and make good choices,” he says. “He’d probably react the same way all of us are reacting.” Increased regulation is one of the biggest challenges, says Phil, requiring credit unions to “document commonsense things” and putting an extra hurdle in the way of serving members.
But Frank Sr. was a big believer in cooperation—among credit unions, organizations, and people. “My father was very supportive of credit union organizations,” says Frank Jr. “He believed people had to hang together to accomplish their goals.”
Opportunities abound to continue the legacy of Frank Matous Sr. and other credit union pioneers, says Phil.
“There are still people today who are coming up with imaginative ways to do things properly, to secure people’s funds, and to deliver service innovatively. There are a lot of good minds in the credit union movement today.
“Every now and then you hear people saying, ‘Are we going to lose the credit union philosophy?’ I just don’t see it happening. People love to be able to serve, and we’re keeping that spirit in the credit union movement.”