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Mike Tharp: Let us praise County Bank, Gottschalks

Mike Tharp
Mike Tharp

It's like losing a good friend. No, it's worse. It's like losing a member of the family.

County Bank and Gottschalks.

Merced County's history over the last generation would be much different had those two institutions not been here. Had they not decided to engage Mercedians -- often in the diamond-ring sense of that word. Had they not plowed their profits and people back into our communities the way our farmers and ranchers have done for more than a century.

Now we face life without one of them. County Bank is history, taken over earlier this month by the feds, then sold to a Bay Area bank. At one point it held 40 percent of deposits in our county. During its last good year, 2007, it dispensed $1 million to outside causes.

Now we face life with just one of them. Gottschalks has been squeezed by global depression -- and that's what it is now, not a recession -- to a shadow of itself. (The good news is that its January sales rose 13.3 percent.)

Let us now praise these two institutions. They helped us get as far as we have come. Now is not the time and this is not the place to argue management decisions, corporate strategies, personnel policies or woulda-coulda-shoulda.

Now is the time and this is the place to acknowledge their contributions -- money, morale and, most of all, manpower -- to our communities.

And now is the time and this is the place to challenge those who come after them to show the same dimensions of commitment to our communities.

Meet Carmen Ramirez and Jennifer Angel. These two Mercedians stand for what County Bank and Gottschalks did for them -- and for us.

Carmen was a drive-through girl at In-N-Out as a teenager. Some of her regular customers were from County Bank. One of them liked her charm with customers. He offered her a job at the bank. For the next five years, while she went to classes at Merced College, she worked at County Bank. Her bosses "were very indulgent, allowing me flexibility to come in a little later" when she had class or homework.

She was accepted at UCLA, where she graduated with a degree in marketing and advertising. She wanted to come back to Merced. A County Bank employee told her the city was hiring, and she was hired. She helped bring, grow and keep business here. "That brought me back to County Bank," she recalls. "They donated $100,000 for the restoration of Merced Tower -- the premier symbol of Merced as a city. The County Bank connection was still there."

Today she's on the brink of graduating from law school. And she still banks at County Bank: "As long as the same sort of feeling and faces are there, my husband and I will continue to bank there."

Over to you, Westamerica.

Jennifer Angel's story may be even more remarkable. She worked for both Gottschalks and County Bank. She started at the retailer as a temp during the Christmas rush. Over the next nine years she moved up the ranks -- area manager, Human Resources. Gottschalks adjusted her hours while she went through Merced College, then Cal State Stanislaus and wound up as an HR specialist at County Bank's downtown headquarters.

She was there for three- and-a-half years -- until Wednesday. That's when she and three dozen other middle managers were laid off by Westamerica. Speaking in a voice harsh with flu, she says: "It's very sad how these two places are in trouble. They are icons."

Ask a lot of Mercedians about the two icons, and their answers amplify what County Bank and Gottschalks did for us -- and they magnify our loss.

John Garamendi Jr., vice chancellor of university relations at UC Merced: "County Bank endowed a chair in 2001 for $500,000. Gottschalks donated $22,000 for our opening ceremony. All the kids who went across the (campus) bridge were wearing white shirts from Gottschalks. Both were strongly supportive of our campus, going back to its placement."

Barbara Ryan, a longtime bridal registrar at Gottschalks: "I enjoyed helping the young couples set up housekeeping. We registered them in different price ranges. Gottschalks educated us in china, crystal, pots and pans, linens. What kind of lifestyle do you expect to lead? Entertain formally? Casually? I run into kids I registered who now have kids in high school: 'Oh, hi -- do you remember me?' I can remember their china patterns."

Allan Schell, city manager from 1968-83: "County Bank's motivation was service. There was a Christian theme. All meetings started with a prayer. They tried to set aside a percentage for their contributions. Their logo was on everything. County Bank was an anchor in the city's efforts to keep an entertainment and financial center downtown."

Robin Shepard, executive director of the Merced College Foundation: "County Bank has sponsored for many years a scholarship for minority students, Hispanic and Hmong, to get business-related majors. They gave us a grant for new theater curtains. They funded a scoreboard for our stadium. They were truly a company that invested in our community, putting profits back into the community."

Don Bergman, 10-year CEO of the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce: "The managers and their people were extremely involved in the United Way, the chamber of commerce, myriad areas of the county. County Bank was our hometown bank. They were involved in the American Heart Association, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the SPCA -- they were all over."

Frank Quintero, development coordinator for the city of Merced: "Where do I stop? County Bank was more than an economic catalyst for the Valley. They sponsored sporting events. They donated to nonprofits. They helped start small businesses. They helped peopled realize their dreams. Gottschalks reflects a major corporate institution in the Valley -- a uniquely Valley store that covered several states. If there was ever a community event that needed sponsorship, or a nonprofit that needed help, Gottschalks was there."

Gayle Callahan, whose idea inspired this column, was a Gottschalks lifer. She trained hundreds of employees, not only in their jobs, but in their mindset toward customers and residents. She fondly remembers that the main store once painted its roof with a "CAFB We (heart) U" sign. The store was directly under Castle Air Force Base's landing path, and it was warmly received by pilots and crew.

Here's the challenge to the corporations coming here or expanding here. We mean you, Westamerica, Kohl's, Farmers & Merchant Bank, maybe Wal-Mart, maybe others. Stand on the shoulders of two giants: County Bank and Gottschalks.

Merced Mall has already picked up the gauntlet. It was a major sponsor of the Amgen bike race and the marquee event for kids in this weekend's MERCO bike race.

All you corporations should do no less -- and in this time of financial famine, you should try to do even more. You are investing in human potential, not abstract assets. Now more than ever, we need your help.

County Bank and Gottschalks remind us that American capitalism, to succeed, must engage with the communities where it operates.

As both County Bank and Gottschalks have shown for a generation, it's not only about the profits.

It's about the people.

Executive editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456/2427 or