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"I love this man,” one customer says on her way out, to another on her way in.
She is referring to Norris “Whitey” Mendenhall, turning 92 on August 25, Whitey is one of the oldest U.S. Bankers and the only “General Clerk” at our company.
Seated in front of an eclectic backdrop of paintings by local artists from the Catalina Art Association, it is clear Whitey is the most beloved original in the room.
“The art draws people into the bank,” Whitey said.
Once they are inside, however, it is Whitey’s personality that captivates them and makes them smile.
Catalina Island is a unique destination. Situated 22 miles off the coast of Southern California, the island is accessible by air or sea travel. It was turned into a tourist destination in the 1920s by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. who invested millions in needed infrastructure and attractions. The island is also known for the nonnative bison herd, originally brought to the island for the filming of a Western.
While so much of the world is becoming increasingly digital, Catalina Island remains a place with many reminders of the past. The biggest of which is how much the island economy revolves around cash and coins. While more places on the island now accept credit card and digital payments – for years even hotels required payment in cash – island business owners and residents rely heavily on the U.S. Bank branch in Avalon, the only physical bank on Catalina Island. The bank is also home to one of only two ATM machines on the entire island.
For 32 years, the first individual that customers have interacted with has been Whitey. Sitting or standing by the door, Whitey greets customers and points them to where they can get help – or likely get some more cash. Before the pandemic more than 1 million people visited the island annually, meaning many newcomers have not previously visited the branch and welcome the assistance from Whitey.
Whitey delights in visits from tourists and locals alike. He knows the nearly 4,000 island residents by name. And he smiles as he gives lollipops to children visiting the bank.
His other major job duty includes rolling coins for use by the many merchants on the island. Near his coin counter he keeps a photo and old desktop name plate of his favorite coworker, Carl Jordan, former manager of the Avalon branch who went on to become our Consumer and Business Banking executive vice president serving all of Southern California.
Whitey and Carl still visibly share a special mutual respect as they swap stories of the times they spent working together on the island. One standout example was the instance when they tried to wash the sea salt grime off the branch’s picture windows, but instead, ended up flooding the ATM machine. That error was quickly rectified by the pair using blow-dryers to save the soggy machine. Another memory the duo recounts, is helping to integrate the Rotary Club of Avalon, opening the all-male club membership to female members.
Carl credits Whitey for helping him to ease into island life and encouraging his growth early in his career. Whitey has been a mentor to several people on the island, as well as an avid volunteer, racking up thousands of volunteer hours with the Catalina Island Conservancy, where he spends most of his volunteer time watering and transplanting plants in what Whitey refers to as “my garden.”
The Conservancy established a volunteer award in his honor in 2003 named the Whitey Mendenhall “Grow Baby Grow” Native Plant Nursery Award, given annually to a volunteer in recognition of incredible contributions, and a nod to Whitey’s signature gardening catch phrase.
Encouraging growth is part of Whitey’s legacy, creating a ripple effect of kindness through leaders like Carl, and also helping Whitey himself when he needed it most.
After suffering two strokes in 2018, Whitey was motivated to take physical rehabilitation seriously so he could return to work. Proving the adage “you get what you give,” Whitey has devoted his life to loving his community, and the love of his community helped to reinvigorate his life.
Whitey moved to the Island in 1967 after “finding his love in Avalon bay” – his wife, Joy. Together, the Mendenhalls have been staples on the island, purchasing a home, raising two sons, and acting as surrogate grandparents for many more young people on the island.
The Air Force veteran acquired his nickname, “Whitey” from a manager in his youth referencing his tow-head hair color. Originally a “cornhusker” from Nebraska his parents were farmers who relocated to Santa Monica during the Great Depression in search of work. Whitey himself is no stranger to work, having had a long career managing the main grocery stores on the island prior to “retiring,” and taking on his second career at the bank in 1989.
Whitey continues to work, because he doesn’t consider it labor, he knows it is a service – performed by him, but also given back to him.
Though not affiliated with any one religious denomination, Whitey does still have a boyhood bible that he periodically reads, and after a few minutes of watching him at work, it becomes clear that his spiritual path is one of putting kindness into action, often saying, “People just need a helping hand.”
There are people and places that go to extremes to advertise their questionable uniqueness – and then there are people and places that just are quietly and unquestionably unique – Whitey Mendenhall of Catalina Island is one such gem.
Whether it be his work, or helping plants or young people to grow, he offers the same sentiment, “I don’t count how long I’ve been doing it. I’m just glad to be able to.”
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