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Bank building is a reminder of a bygone era

POSTED: August 7, 2011 1:30 a.m.

For the first time since it was built, the building at 111 Green St., no longer has the word "bank" inscribed on its side.

When I came to Gainesville, it was First National Bank, the dominant bank in Gainesville and a major player in Northeast Georgia.

But it was really a school where the art of banking was taught to several generations of bankers, many of them still practicing their trade, albeit a little differently.

The late Ray McRae and his trusted lieutenant, Richard Shockley, oversaw the growth of First National Bank into one of the state’s largest. At one point, more than half the checking accounts in Gainesville were from First National.

There was a time that loans were made on the basis of your good name in the community, the reputation of your family and your hard work and determination.

If you started a new business, the bank would send you a framed letter containing a crisp, new dollar bill, declaring it to be your first dollar of clear profit.

First National would eventually merge with Regions Bank. In the past few months, Regions sold the building and built a new one across the street. The building was too big for the bank’s operations and was nearly half a century old.

It was a monument to the 1960s with columns that resemble a Phillips screwdriver.

In its heyday, it was the bank where men in freshly pressed shirts and women dressed in proper business attire served customers for many years. It was the place where deals were closed that brought new jobs and new hope to a growing community.

McRae was a stickler for some details, like men in ties and everyone with a name tag. He wore one himself. The man was the CEO of a billion-dollar enterprise, but look back in file photos and he always had a name tag on his lapel.

Name tags and ties are not what made them great bankers. It was decisions made by looking you in the eye and seeing the determination in your soul.

Because of government and other regulations, the banking world now operates on the basis of criteria that many fledgling businesses find hard to reach. Ask any business owner and he or she will tell you all about it.

The housing bust in our area resulted in many banks, some of them more than 100 years old, being seized by the government and sold to a company from another region of the state or nation.

The new owners are fine folks, but it is particularly sad to see a business that survived the hardscrabble days of the Great Depression have to close.

I long for an era that seems to be fading. Once you walked in a bank or store and there was a good chance you would be doing business with the owner or president.

In many cases, they might know you from the moment you walked in. If they didn’t, they would before you left.

The old bank building will soon be revitalized into something else, and it will be an asset to Gainesville.

For me, it will always be a reminder of an era that I truly miss.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.



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