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Raymond Van Houtte Wore Many Different Hats

March 24, 1988

NEW YORK (AP) _ Ask Raymond A. Van Houtte what his childhood ambitions were and it’s unlikely that running a couple of arms companies, practicing law, accounting, teaching or banking would have appeared on his list.

Yet Van Houtte, who set out to become an engineer and now heads a small bank in upstate New York and one of the nation’s most powerful banking trade groups, has done all of them with varying degrees of success.

″I don’t think of myself as ambitious. I’m just interested in many things,″ said Van Houtte, the son of a Detroit grocer. ″If you ever get the idea you’d like to try something different, do it.″

Even now the 63-year-old Van Houtte continues to try on different hats, so to speak.

As current president of the New York State Bankers Association, which represents many of the nation’s biggest commercial banks, he hobnobs with the likes of former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker and other prominent bankers and has lobbied vigorously in Washington, D.C. and Albany for broader banking powers.

Van Houtte is one of the most outspoken opponents of the Glass-Steagall Act, a Depression-era law that separates investment banking from commercial banking, and a similar ″mini Glass-Steagall″ in New York. He believes the laws eventually will be repealed and envisions banks offering a wider range of financial services in the next five years, like a one-stop shopping network.

If it were up to Van Houtte, banks would be permitted to sell insurance or underwrite corporate securities but those involved in risky businesses wouldn’t be eligible for deposit insurance.

At Tompkins County Trust Co., a community bank in a college town where Van Houtte started out as a director in the mid 1960s, the small-town granderfatherly image emerges. There, the bank president of 15 years meets with the local Boy Scouts of America and the chamber of commerce, two of the many community groups in which he’s been involved.

Van Houtte knows many of his customers on a first-name basis, and he’s been known to accommodate depositers in need of emergency cash long after closing hours, something unheard of in a big city.

Van Houtte, a well-dressed man with whitish hair and a pleasant smile, recalled his first loan at Tompkins came out of his own pocket.

″I had a young woman who asked me if she could borrow $20 to buy a dress and get a job at Cornell (University). I said, ‘A bank doesn’t loan you $20,’ so I gave her the $20 myself,″ he said in a recent interview. ″She bought the dress, came back and showed it to me.″

The woman got the job and repaid the loan $5 every two weeks - ″with 6 percent interest,″ he said, betraying his stait-laced banker’s streak.

″I never realized I would be a banker. These are things I’m able to do that make me feel so good,″ Van Houtte said. ″Lawyers (for instance) don’t make things happen. They sometimes prevent things from happening.″

His career as a lawyer spanned about 10 years and followed his stint as a certified public accountant, which overlapped his teaching and accounting job at the now-defunct Eastern Military Academy in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., shortly after World War II. Running two arms companies, Poly-Choke Co. in Hartford, Conn., and Ithaca Gun Co. in Ithaca, N.Y., came somewhere in between.

As a young lawyer he specialized in mergers and acquisitions, but he said he also arranged a few overseas adoptions of babies abandoned during World War II.

The pay back then for accounting or law wasn’t great, Van Houtte said, and with a wife and three children to support, including an infant daughter struggling with a birth defect, he found himself living from paycheck to paycheck.

His job at Poly-Choke, which specialized in customized gun barrels and whose customers included Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, ″finally gave us enough money so we could afford a two-bedroom apartment instead of one.″ That job eventually led to Ithaca Gun, where he served as president from 1966 to 1968.

These days, Van Houtte and his wife, Margaret, live a comfortable life in Ithaca, dividing their time between the bank and community activities. Van Houtte’s biggest personal satisfaction, he says, is in helping families, businesses and community groups get off the ground financially.

One of his successes, he said, was arranging for a new home to be built for the Ladies Union Benevolent Society, a century-old organization in Ithaca that provides retirement housing for indigent women.

″I really have a wonderful life as a banker,″ he said. ″You feel good because you’ve helped people.″

Next year, Van Houtte plans to retire and is looking forward to doing a lot more traveling, fishing, gardening and shell collecting. ″I have a lot of things I’d like to do.″

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