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Inside the Stagecoach
October 14, 2014

‘Mr. Knoxville’ puts people first to build Iowa banking legacy

Wells Fargo’s longest-serving bank employee, 88-year-old Donnie Rodgers, learned early that people’s needs come before business.

Sixty-seven years ago, Donnie Rodgers took the banking manager in Knoxville, Iowa, up on an offer that sounded pretty good to a newlywed.

“He said he’d help me get a house if I went to work at the bank,” Donnie says. “He was true to his word, and I think I held up my end of the deal pretty good.”

Donnie, 88, and his wife, Marie, still live in that same house on Main Street in Knoxville (population 7,313). He still gives her a goodbye kiss every morning and returns for lunch at noon. And he still works at the bank at 102 S. Second St.

Known as Community National Bank when he began as a teller on Jan. 21, 1947, the bank is now one of more than 6,200 Wells Fargo locations in the U.S., but with one key distinction: It employs the banking store team member with the longest tenure — 67 years.

That would be Donnie, who’s been dubbed “Mr. Knoxville” by the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce for his tenure and the way he’s translated a knack for details, numbers, and people into decades of community service and mentoring.

He’s got a brick in the wall at the Knoxville Raceway, his name in the Chamber Hall of Fame for his time as chamber ambassador, and a bike in the Marion County Historical Society Museum.

Donnie bought the red bike for $50 from a local hardware store in 1967.

“I rode it until my knees told me it was time for a pickup,” says Donnie, whose chamber buddies once tried to get him to trade his classic Fedora for a bike helmet. (The “Protect Mr. Knoxville!” poster they created and signed of a helmeted Donnie on his bike hangs on the wall of his front porch.)

67-year career sees numerous changes

He started his banking career as a teller working with livestock sales — jotting down the sale orders for auctioneers in the morning and helping farmers finance the purchases in the afternoon.

When drive-thrus arrived, the bank sent Donnie to head up its new “motor bank” a block away on East Marion Street. It featured two drive-thru lanes on each side of a small brick building.

Until computers came along, he recorded account details with pen and paper.

“I start with people and their lives first, and the banking and business come after that.”

Over time, Knoxville-area farms got bigger, land prices higher, and the loans more complex. But Donnie navigated those changes, too, so he could continue to serve customers like Abe Synhorst.

“I would see Donnie, who grew up on a farm, at the livestock sales and knew that if I needed him to come by my farm at a particular time, I could set my watch by his arrival,” says Abe, who has banked with Donnie since the 1950s. “He knew exactly what I was talking about, and exactly what I needed, which built my trust.

“There are lots of friendly people here but one that stands out, and that’s Donnie. He’s been the one that the most people wanted to talk to and do business with.”

Donald Moore is another Donnie fan. He arrived in Knoxville in 1973, a veteran seeking to pick up the pieces of his life after the Vietnam War.

Like so many others, Donald soon found his way to the bank and Donnie. When he needed an apartment, Donnie had a contact. Attorney? Donnie offered another name. It wasn’t long before Donald sat in Donnie’s kitchen enjoying one of Marie’s homemade pies.

“He was like a father figure to me during those difficult days,” Donald says. “Our lives just crisscrossed one day, and I still go to him. When I walk through the door of the bank, he calls out to me. That makes me feel good. I like Knoxville, and I like Wells Fargo because of Donnie.”

Relationship builder

These days, in the twilight of his career, Donnie is the “lobby leader” — greeting customers as they come inside, making sure they get to the right place, and keeping an eye out for growing lines or other potential bottlenecks.

He’ll take people to the vault to open their safe-deposit boxes, get a cup of coffee for someone waiting to see a banker, answer customers’ questions, or — spotting a fidgety child — slide open a drawer that hides his candy stash.

After making sure the parents are OK with the gift, he’ll give the kid a lollipop and break into a grin. Sometimes he’ll start whistling a tune. And you never know who will stop in just to pull up a chair in front of his desk and ask, “Hey, Donnie, what’s the latest?”

“Donnie is a relationship builder,” says Dameon Larson, who has managed the bank for the past 10 of her 21 years with the company. “His legacy is all about retaining and building relationships. I hope someday people trust me enough to call me at home for advice like they do Donnie. They associate their bank with him.”

For millennials like her, Lead Teller Samantha Blakley says Donnie’s people skills transcend time and technology.

“Before there was online anything or call centers or smartphones or tablets or the technology we have today, Donnie was ‘The Bank’ to customers and handled everything himself,” she says. “It’s people like Donnie who still make a difference by putting people first over everything else. That’s what Donnie’s life teaches me, and it’s a lesson I won’t forget as I serve my customers and build my career.”

Another banking day done, Mr. Knoxville heads outside to his truck and seems pleasantly surprised to find it parked in the same space.

“It’s still here,” he says, explaining that so many family members borrow it that he just leaves the keys inside.

He’ll be back again tomorrow, banking by the same principle he’s followed for 67 years.

“I start with people and their lives first, and the banking and business come after that,” Donnie says. “I told Dameon the other day that if the bank ever fell on hard times, they don’t need to pay me. Just take the money and give it to someone else who needs it more.

“I’d do it for free. I’ll continue to work until they say I don’t have a key.”

Ready for business: Donnie at the Wells Fargo banking store in Knoxville, Iowa, where he’s worked since Jan. 21, 1947.
Donnie’s office: Wells Fargo’s store at 102 S. Second St. is in the heart of Knoxville ― right across from the Marion County Courthouse.
Donnie Rodgers: One banker’s life
Donnie and Marie enjoy looking at photo albums, homemade tribute scrapbooks made by customers, and other mementos.
Treasured items include this document from the Iowa State Senate honoring Donnie for 65 years of Wells Fargo service, dated Jan. 21, 2012.
Donnie visiting customer Abe Synhorst at the Synhorst farm.
Donnie’s bike in the Marion County Historical Society Museum.
Donnie’s Knoxville Chamber of Commerce buddies made him a poster suggesting he trade his fedora for a bike helmet.
Donnie’s bike was enshrined at the Marion County Historical Society Museum in 2013. He bought it for $50 and rode it to work for nearly two decades.
Donnie likes hats too — especially the fedora he wears when the mercury plunges.
In 1996, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad added Donnie to the state’s Volunteer Hall of Fame for his work with Meals on Wheels and other groups.
Donnie’s winsome personality always gets him noticed.
His sharp wit, fun-loving ways ― and whistling ― have endured through 67 years of work.
Donnie says Lead Teller Samantha Blakley (left) and Teller Liz Schwanebeck are more than teammates: “They’re my friends.”
Ready for business: Donnie at the Wells Fargo banking store in Knoxville, Iowa, where he’s worked since Jan. 21, 1947.
Donnie’s office: Wells Fargo’s store at 102 S. Second St. is in the heart of Knoxville ― right across from the Marion County Courthouse.
A lasting union: Donnie and Marie not long after their marriage in 1947. Their family would eventually include four children, nine grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.
Sharing memories: Donnie and Marie enjoy looking at photo albums, homemade tribute scrapbooks made by customers, and other mementos.
Treasured items include this document from the Iowa State Senate honoring Donnie for 65 years of Wells Fargo service, dated Jan. 21, 2012.
“I like people,” Donnie says, visiting customer Abe Synhorst at the Synhorst farm.
Donnie’s bike in the Marion County Historical Society Museum.
Donnie’s Knoxville Chamber of Commerce buddies made him a poster suggesting he trade his fedora for a bike helmet.
Donnie’s bike was enshrined at the Marion County Historical Society Museum in 2013. He bought it for $50 and rode it to work for nearly two decades.
Donnie likes hats too — especially the fedora he wears when the mercury plunges.
In 1996, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad added Donnie to the state’s Volunteer Hall of Fame for his work with Meals on Wheels and other groups.
Donnie’s winsome personality always gets him noticed.
His sharp wit, fun-loving ways ― and whistling ― have endured through 67 years of work.
Donnie says Lead Teller Samantha Blakley (left) and Teller Liz Schwanebeck are more than teammates: “They’re my friends.”
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