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An Unsung Hero

March 2014 – Vol: 37 No. 3
by Dianne Molvig

2013 CUES Director of the Year Ronald Seaman has pitched in to help his CU—and the movement—in numerous ways.

Ronald Seaman receives his CUES Diretor of the Year Award from CUES' President/CEO Chuck Fagan.
CUES President/CEO Chuck Fagan (right) was on hand to congratulate Ronald Seaman on his award.

Fifty years ago, Ronald Seaman joined his first credit union, SAFE Credit Union, North Highlands, Calif. Though Seaman now chairs its board, during his first decades of membership, he was relatively uninvolved.

“To be honest with you,” says the CUES Director member, “I didn’t go to annual meetings and, as long as everything was OK, I didn’t pay attention to what the board was doing.”

Then in 1986, he was asked to serve on the SAFE CU Board. Seaman was hesitant at first, given his work and family commitments, but decided he was “willing to try it.” Now, looking back on 27 years as a board member, 15 of those as chair, he says, “It’s been a great experience. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

Those who know him would make a similar statement about Seaman—that he’s one of the best things that’s happened to the credit union movement. Over the years, he has pitched in, in numerous ways, on the local, state and national levels to help make the movement stronger. No question, he’s a deserving recipient of the 2013 CUES Director of the Year award, which he received during Directors Conference in December.

Still, Seaman was surprised when CUES President/CEO Chuck Fagan called him last September to inform him about his award. Seaman didn’t even know he’d been nominated. “Chuck said, ‘Congratulations!’ and I said, ‘What??!!’” Seaman recalls with a laugh.

The person who nominated Seaman for the honor was CUES member Henry Wirz, SAFE CU’s president/CEO. “Ron is one of those quiet, hard-working people who do their jobs well and often don’t get a lot of recognition or attention,” Wirz says. “But they’re the ones who make the credit union system so effective. He really is an unsung hero.”

Shades of the Past

After winning the CUES award, Seaman got to thinking about his long-time credit union involvement—and about his father, who worked as a milkman and was active in the Teamsters, always attending meetings and political rallies.

“As a young person, I thought, ‘What in the world is he doing that for?’” Seaman recalls. “Now guess what? When I think about what I’ve done with credit unions, I’m basically doing some of the same things my father did, particularly in political advocacy. I guess I got it from him, which I didn’t realize before.”

Seaman grew up in Beacon, N.Y., on the Hudson River about 60 miles north of New York City. He earned a mechanical engineering degree at a college further upstate, then went to work as a civilian employee at Griffiss Air Force Base in New York, until finding out it was on a list of bases to be closed.

He and his engineering co-workers heard McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, Calif., was hiring engineers. Having had enough of cold winters and being young and single, Seaman decided he was ready for some California sun.

So in 1964, he and a couple of friends moved across the country to take engineering jobs at McClellan, where Seaman later shifted into management positions and then into classified programs, before retiring in 1996.

It was when Seaman first arrived at McClellan that he heard about credit unions. Someone suggested he join the civilian employees’ credit union on the base, which at that time was separate from the military credit union. The two organizations merged after the based closed, and SAFE CU later expanded its field of membership further. Today it’s a $2 billion credit union serving people who live, work or worship in 12 counties surrounding Sacramento.

Seaman signed up as a member when he began working at McClellan. “And that’s how it all started,” he says. Little did he know where that first small step would eventually lead.

Spheres of Influence

As a board member and chair, Seaman has been invaluable not only to SAFE CU, “but,” Wirz says, “he also has been extraordinary in terms of his involvement beyond our credit union.”

For starters, Seaman became active in the local chapter of the California Credit Union League, including serving on the board of the chapter. During the time Seaman volunteered with the league, the Sacramento Valley Chapter won Chapter of the Year awards several times.

Later he got elected to the league’s board, on which he served for many years, finishing his last term in 2012. He also served on a committee that redesigned the chapters and league board structure to improve representation and encourage greater member participation.

Seaman has made a name for himself nationally, as well. In 2011, the Credit Union National Association selected him and 10 other directors from across the country to serve on the newly formed Volunteer Leadership Committee, which aims to boost volunteer involvement and support in the credit union movement.

Plus, throughout his tenure, Seaman has been a vigorous advocate for credit unions in front of local, state and national political decision-makers. “I’m convinced you have to be active,” he says. “It’s not my favorite thing to do, but to get your point across, you have to be in there telling [the law- and policy-makers] your views. Otherwise, credit unions are at their mercy.”

On the political advocacy front, the local level is just as crucial as the state and national, in Seaman’s view. “A number of years ago, it dawned on me that you need to be involved at the local level,” he says, “because sometimes those people move up.”

For instance, for years he attended community meetings convened by his county supervisor, who later ran for and won a seat in the state assembly. Through this kind of long-term approach, “I get to know people over many years,” he says. “When you do that, you have a better chance of getting your views across.”

Insight and Foresight

Seaman’s big-picture view of the credit union world makes him an exceptional board member and chairman at SAFE CU, says Wirz, who has been CEO during Seaman’s entire tenure on the board. He feels Seaman has a grasp of not only what’s happening at his credit union, but also in other credit unions.

“He talks with other directors and CEOs,” Wirz says. “He knows how we compare, not only in the statistical sense, but in terms of the everyday cultural aspects that are the intangibles that make a credit union relevant and helpful to its members.”

Still, at times Seaman admits he “feels uncomfortable” about his long tenure as a board member, and also as chair. He recognizes the dangers of a board becoming stagnant, unchanging. And he knows how crucial it is for the board to keep revitalizing itself.

Wirz says the board has found ways to do that, under Seaman’s leadership. For instance, the board turned to BoardSource, an organization that works with nonprofit boards, to develop a process to evaluate not only the board’s effectiveness as a whole, but also individual board members’ performance.

That process helps to weed out board members “who may have long since passed their usefulness and are not contributing anymore,” Wirz explains. “That’s helped our board to stay fresh.”

In addition, the SAFE CU Board strives to find and develop new board members. “We did an assessment early last year,” Seaman says, “and laid out the metrics of the skills we have on the board, and what we will need in the future as people potentially step down. We’re also trying to build diversity on the board” by recruiting more women, Hispanics and younger people.

Another board-building technique at SAFE CU is to select directors pro tem—that is, non-voting directors who get the opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities and build rapport with existing board members.

“The board has a good slate of people who can fill in when the next round of vacancies occurs,” Wirz says. “To me, that’s one more sign of Ron’s insight and willingness to look ahead.”

Intrinsic Rewards

For Seaman, the best part about being a board member and chair is to get the chance to work with a team. He describes his fellow board members, volunteer committee members and CEO as outstanding. “It’s very fulfilling to work closely with those folks,” he says, “and to see things come to fruition. We’re helping our members; that’s the main focus.”

He’s quick to point out that his colleagues all had as much to do with his winning the CUES award as he did. “Without them,” he says, “this wouldn’t have happened.”

In looking at his board responsibilities and other credit union activities, plus his involvement in local government and various community organizations, you quickly get a picture of someone who spends a lot of time at meetings, educational events, conferences, reading, and everything else that it takes for a volunteer to stay up to speed. Seaman likes it that way. “I’m retired, but not really retired,” he says.

He also enjoys time with his family, including his wife, Catherine, two grown daughters and three grandchildren, ages 23, 17 and 10, who all live in the Sacramento area. Traveling is another of Seaman’s interests. He and Catherine try to get to Europe at least once a year, as well as other destinations.

Catherine traveled with him to Hawaii for the CUES conference last fall at which he received his award. Today, months after winning the honor, he remains surprised at that development.

“I guess I just feel I’m doing what I need to do,” Seaman says, “and that’s helping our credit union do better for our members.”

Dianne Molvig is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis.

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