And then there was that time that Tom Ray chased the bank robbers down Main Street in Waterloo.
He doesn’t remember exactly when that happened — his daughter, Beth, says it was more than 35 years ago — but he remembers the other details.
“It was right after Christmas some year,” he recalls. “We were still an old-timey bank, and he stuck the gun through the teller cage. That was my opportunity, and I grabbed the gun. He pointed it right at me — it was a .38 Colt revolver — and when they went out the door, they turned around and fired after me. They missed me, but they shot four or five holes in the glass.”
Ray, though, was having none of it, and he ran after them, wearing the new pair of pants he got for Christmas and, in his pocket, carrying the propane pipe lighter that was also a Christmas gift.
He grabbed on to the getaway car as it made its way down the street, eventually being flung off to the side.
“I went sliding down there on my stomach, and the first thing I noticed was a burning on my leg,” he says. “I had broken the pipe, and all the fluid was going down my leg.”
That this happened in Waterloo, a small town in Lauderdale County in extreme northwest Alabama, is a bit surprising. That Tom Ray chased those bank robbers is not. Some would say he’s an unconventional sort, especially for a bank president, but he may just be ultra-conventional. He wears overalls to work most every day, is more friend than banker to many of his customers, and, on many days, you have to catch him quick at his office or, as Beth says, “he’s up and gone to the hayfields.”
Yes, Tom Ray, president of the Farmers & Merchants Bank of Waterloo, is a farmer, too, raising cattle in what he says is the “most beautiful place in the state of Alabama.”
Waterloo is home and has been for decades, and that’s why he and his daughter, now CEO of the bank, take pride in the way they run Farmers & Merchants. For them, it’s all about their customers.
“We grew up here,” their website says. “We treat our neighbors the way our parents taught us. Be friendly. Be polite. Don’t rush people. Take time to get to know them. And always be there to help them.”
Farmers & Merchants Bank was founded in 1914, but Tom Ray’s father came to the bank in 1927. “As I’ve been told, the bank was in trouble, and they were looking for someone to come in from a larger bank in Florence, so they asked my dad,” he says.
After graduating with an accounting and finance degree from the University of North Alabama in 1965, Tom went into the service and, later, to work for the bank. “There were three employees back then, so we all worked together, and I was a teller one day or janitor the next or whatever was needed,” he says. “As my dad got older, I took over more responsibility.”
And the bank got bigger. “When I came to the bank, it was just over $1
million in total assets, and we’ve surpassed $106 million in the last week or two,” he says.
Tom doesn’t remember when he took over as president, but his father died in 1992, about a decade after he had stepped away from the bank. Beth Ray’s degree is in management and entrepreneurship, and she went to work at the bank straight out of college, where she was a star softball player. “I never really thought about anything else,” she says of sports and banking.
She does think about the history, though, and the legacy her family has with the people of Waterloo and the bank’s customers. (She, along with her brother, Tommy, and her father comprise the bank’s board).
“I saw them in the lobby when I was a little girl, and some of them are still here,” she says. “I love them telling me about my dad and my grandfather.”
For Tom Ray, those customers always come first. “That’s just the way we do things around here,” he says. “A lot of the people who are our customers, I know their parents and their grandparents. I enjoy knowing people I can help. If they get in a tight, I, or Beth, can come up with a solution to help them.”
It’s hard to tell who appreciates each other more — the Rays or their customers.
“A few days ago, my dad was gone to the hayfield, and a customer came
in to pay his note,” she says. “He said, ‘I’d like to see either Mr. Tom or Beth.’ He came in my office and said, ‘I know I can pay this at the window, but you’re the one who handed me the money, and I just like to sit down and talk with you and tell you how much I appreciate the money.’ I appreciate that. It warms your heart to hear people like that.”
Scott Latham, president and CEO of the the Alabama Bankers Association, says “the world needs more Tom Rays.”
“The community of Waterloo, as well as Lauderdale County, is fortunate to have Tom Ray literally in its corner,” Latham says. “It can be said of Tom that he loves serving other people, he loves the land and he loves our nation.”
Like others, Latham refers to Tom Ray’s understated dress code, calling him “my overalls banker.” That lack of pretense can lead to some confusion.
“He wears overalls every day to work, and we have a planter with flowers out front that he likes to sit on sometimes during the day,” Beth Ray says. “We had someone pull up in a big, fancy long car, a Cadillac, maybe. He got out wearing a big, nice suit, all fixed up, walked right past Daddy. Daddy spoke to him, and he gave Daddy the stink eye. He walked in the bank and asked to see the president, and we said, ‘You probably walked right past him.’ He walked right past him on the way back out, too. He didn’t even stop to say anything. He was too embarrassed.”