BY GABE LICHT
DELANO, MN In 1946, Harry S. Truman was president, Perry Como released the song “Prisoner of Love,” and the price of gas was 15 cents per gallon.
That’s also the year that Irene Gardner began her career at the State Bank of Delano after Harry Kuka asked her if she would be interested in the job.
Now, 71 years later, Gardner has received the 2017 Independent Community Bankers of Minnesota Legacy of Community Banking Award.
ICBM President and CEO Jim Amundson explained that the award recognizes individuals with 50 or more years of banking service who have demonstrated an extraordinary and long-term commitment to community banking.
“I think we’re a couple decades late for you,” Amundson said with a laugh. “ . . . Banks are nothing without people. Thanks for all your dedication and the difference you’ve made for customers.”
Gardner began working at the Bridge Avenue location of the bank right out of high school, and remembers seeing people lined up outside the bank on Fridays, waiting to get inside to cash their paychecks.
Throughout her career, she transitioned from teller, to bookkeeper, to manager of the teller line, to bank cashier, to vice president and loan officer.
She worked at both downtown locations, and then the Highway 12 location, where the bank moved in 2002.
“I do remember the celebration when we moved to the latest location, and Irene dancing on the table with a couple of our customers during the grand opening,” President Wendy Gilmer said. “That was quite memorable. It was the customers who chivalrously helped her onto the table.”
2002 was the same year Gardner retired from actively working in the bank and became a member of the State Bank of Delano Board of Directors.
“I was glad you put me on the board because I got a little deeper into things,” Gardner told Steve and Wendy Gilmer.
“You definitely have a mind for banking,” Wendy Gilmer said.
When asked to name her most memorable moment in banking, Gardner said, “Everything. I’ve enjoyed it all.”
She has a special affinity for the customers she has served and the employees she has worked with.
“In a small place like this, it’s more personal,” Gardner said.
Steve Gilmer, the chairman of the bank, has worked with Gardner for 44 years.
“I learned quite a bit about community banking when I came to the State Bank of Delano in 1973,” he said. “I learned from experienced people like Irene.”
Current staff learned from Gardner, as well.
“Some still say, ‘Irene told us to do it this way,’” Steve Gilmer said.
Wendy Gilmer highlighted the impact Gardner has had on the bank and beyond.
“She dedicated a lot of her life to banking and this community,” she said.
Gardner’s son, Den, agreed.
“She was a pioneer in banking and in Delano as one of the few women leaders from the 1960s,” he said. “She was Delano’s version of Gloria Steinem. Not only are we proud of her for her business and leadership accomplishments, but more importantly, proud that she’s our mom.”
Fellow board members also sounded off on Gardner’s award.
“Very nice tribute to Irene, and well deserved,” Phil Gilmer said. “It’s an honor to know her and to work with her on the board.”
John Reuter also called the award well deserved for Gardner and Jack Veach called it a “big award for a great person.”
Gardner will turn 88 in November.
When she heard the quotes from her fellow board members while receiving her award at the bank, she said, “I’m not used to this. Most people don’t live that long.”