Remembering Jewel

from Wayne Wood:My friend Jewel Kavanaugh, who was the longtime manager of the Vanderbilt Employees Credit Union, died this week. She was a great person, who helped scores of people in her long career. When she was about to retire in 2002 I walked down to the Credit Union office and talked to her for a retirement story, but when I sat down to write it, it didn’t come out as a story, it came out as a personal tribute, which I decided to run as a column:I can’t think of anybody at Vanderbilt who more personifies the idea of the University helping the people who work for it than Jewel Kavanaugh, who is retiring as the director of the Vanderbilt Employees’ Credit Union after 40 years.She has lived and breathed the credit union since 1962, when she became its first full-time employee, and it is through Jewel that countless employees over the years have been able to borrow the money to buy cars or take vacations, or save for Christmas presents or a rainy day.“When I walk out this door on August 30, I will have no regrets,” she says. “I have done all I can do to help people.”Here’s the key: Jewel really cares about people. When she speaks of credit union members, it’s not unusual for her to refer to them as “our people.”When you’re in the business of loaning money, sometimes it’s necessary to tell people no. Telling people no is not a traditional path to being liked. Somehow, Jewel has the ability to turn down a loan without putting down the person. This is a rare, almost celestial, gift.“There’s a way to say no that points to how people could get a better [credit] report,” she says. “We’ve always tried to educate and help our people—about debt ratio and how much they owe.“It’s not how much you do for a person, it’s how you make them feel. Sometimes you just cry with ‘em.”Jewel has done some crying herself. Her husband died suddenly when she still had two children at home, and she says it was her coworkers who pulled her through.“When I lost my husband, I couldn’t have made it without my family here,” she says.The Vanderbilt Employees’ Credit Union was formed in 1959 and Jewel began working there three years later.      She had actually began work at Vanderbilt in 1953, shortly after the 18-year-old had graduated Cumberland City High School in Stewart County and moved to Nashville. She worked then in the Bursar’s office in Kirkland Hall, but decided to quit her job to spend some time at home after the birth of her second son in 1961. The stay-at-home stuff didn’t take. Six months later, she was back, working as the credit union’s bookkeeper. She was promoted to the job of manager in 1970.Jewel says that her proudest accomplishment during her time at the credit union came in 1992 when it was ranked number one in the state in Capital Assets Management Earning Liquidity. That same year Jewel was named Executive of the Year by the Middle Tennessee Chapter of Credit Unions.Jewel doesn’t even let the people who work at the credit union use the word “customers.” She says that the credit union is owned by the people who have money deposited there, and they should always be called “members.”She has taken this inclusive idea to heart in her time at the credit union. She clearly sees one of her main missions as educating people about money and credit.“We try to encourage and plead with people not to go to those check-cashing places,” she says, clearly upset that people can be taken advantage of by high interest rates. She recalls one person who came to her to talk about her large credit card balances who said that whenever she got upset about something, she went shopping to feel better.“I told her the next time you get upset, go walk in the park!” she says with a big laugh. “That’s good advice. You get so involved it becomes personal to you. I tried to live by what I’ve taught—not to run charge bills up.”She also says her four decades of dealing with people about money has taught her many lessons, including what she calls the “big lesson”: “You learn that not everything people tells you is the truth.”But even learning that lesson hasn’t taken the shine off Jewel’s dedication to her members or her love for her job.“I sure got a lot of pleasure out of it,” she says. “I’m here because of the help of a lot of people. We don’t live in the world alone.”When I was talking to her in her office the other day, one of many conversations with her over the years, Jewel proudly showed me a letter she had received from Chancellor Gordon Gee.“Congratulations on having enjoyed such success at Vanderbilt and, more importantly, in making us that much better,” he wrote.That’s about right.Jewel Kavanaugh has built the credit union to a $14 million institution with more than 5,000 members, but that’s not really what her accomplishments are about. She is not the kind of person who seeks attention or asked for thanks, but she deserves all of our thanks for a great career. She has quietly, over the course of four decades, helped thousands of Vanderbilt staff and faculty better their lives. That is a great and lasting monument, and we will miss her.

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One Response to Remembering Jewel

  1. All my sympathies to her family and friends. Still recall the help she gave me on a car loan back when I was a young new Vanderbilt staffer.

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