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Jim Ritter loves making lives better at Valley 1st Credit Union

A young man not long out of high school who seems to have other dreams is recruited to manage a credit union.

Like George Bailey, the lovable character made popular by James Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life," Jim Ritter said he "stumbled upon something I love."

Ritter was just 18 when his father got him a job as the manager of the credit union. His father, Richard "Dick" Ritter, was treasurer of the Country Bell Dairy Credit Union.

"I was going to school for accounting, but truthfully I learned more working at that credit union than any professor would have taught me."

Ritter worked for nearly seven years at the dairy credit union before becoming a consultant for the Pennsylvania Credit Union Association. He remained there for 18 years.

Ritter was named chief executive officer of Valley 1st Community Federal Credit Union in 2000.

Chartered originally as the Pittsburgh Steel Employees Federal Credit Union Oct. 7, 1935, it was developed by the mill employees and their families as an opportunity for savings and lending.

Before the formation of credit unions, when working people wanted to buy a home or a car, they had to save their money. They had little other means for realizing their fiscal dreams, Ritter said.

"How do you operate a financial institution in the middle of the Depression?" Ritter asked, marveling at its success.

Ritter noted that just as George Bailey gave his own wedding money to keep the credit union afloat in the movie, the Monessen-based facility was supported by the employees' own Capra-esque qualities.

"No one took a salary, they couldn't afford to," Ritter said. "It wasn't until likely the 1940s or 1950s that they had a paid staff person."

The current office at 851 Schoonmaker Ave., Monessen was built in 1962.

Prior to that, it operated out of a section of the steel mill at 17th Street. The credit union treasurer would have specific hours before or after his shifts in the mill.

"What you saw was a lot done on a handshake," Ritter said.

The first treasurer was James Shaffer, and his successor was Anthony Doyle.

In the early 1960s, new manager Bill Read and the newly appointed board of directors decided to build a permanent home for the credit union.

In 1999, the Monessen site underwent major renovations/expansion, which included construction of drive-through window, ATM machine and night deposit box.

After Read's death in 1968, James Sutherland was named manager, remaining in that position until 1986. Alden Guseman served as manager from 1986 until his retirement in 2000.

The credit union began the transformation to a community based financial institution in 1984. When Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel closed in 1987, the conversion was made.

When the mill went down, the Monessen-based credit union had three choices: become a community credit union, liquidate or merge with another.

"This is one of the strengths of the individuals involved; they were able to morph it into a community-driven credit union," Ritter said.

Ritter assumed his current position in 2000 with the retirement of Guseman.

A branch office inside the Rostraver Township Walmart opened in 2002.

The current board of directors includes:

• Mark Soboslai, chairman.

• Stephen Slebodnik, first vice chairman/treasurer.

• Anita Imbrescia, second vice chairwoman.

• Alice Bialon, secretary.

• Ritter, assistant secretary.

Although the board is comprised of volunteers, there is a paid staff of 14 in Monessen and seven in Rostraver Township.

After 35 years, the past 10 in Monessen, Ritter said working at the credit union gives him a chance to create a better life for the members.

"I enjoy working with people," Ritter said. "This is an opportunity to work with people face-to-face ad help people of modest means. When it comes down to it, it's the common people who make us what we are. When we lose touch with that, we're not a credit union anymore."

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