By Fletcher Word
The Truth Editor
There was laughter aplenty, and more than a few tears, at the University of Toledo’s Carlson Library on Tuesday, May 23, as Suzette Cowell, founder and CEO of the Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union, received her honorary doctorate of public service from UT President Dr. Gregory Postel during a ceremony in which the three dozen guests heard and shared so many stories and memories describing why Cowell, a pillar of the Toledo community, is so deserving of such recognition.
“She’s helped people in the community with financial literacy, been an advocate for foster children, founded a credit union for the underserved, is on countless boards and has been appointed to the advisory council for the Federal Reserve office in Cleveland,” said Dr. Postel as he presented her with the doctorate for public service. “We are recognizing her superior efforts in our community.”
Valerie Simmons-Walston, the UToledo special assistant to the president for Community Engagement and Strategic Partnerships, who organized the event, spoke of the help Cowell has provided in that position connecting her with the community. She also explained the process the university undertook to bestow the honorary doctorate on Cowell.
Cowell, who had not completed her undergraduate degree, approached the university with her intent to finish those studies. However, said Simmons-Walston, when the institution reviewed Cowell’s accomplishments and what she had meant to the community during all those year after leaving college, it was decided that an honorary doctorate made all the sense in the world. They approached her with that possibility, said Simmons-Walston.
After the presentation to the new doctor, a number of speakers expressed their many interactions with Cowell over the years and what they have witnessed her doing for the community. John Szuch, a long-time banker with Capital Bank, Fifth Third and Signature, was there during the planning stages of the credit union, as was Jim Weber, CPA. Both provided guidance for Cowell and the fledging TUFCU as the process was starting almost 30 years ago.
The credit union was suggested to Cowell by Bishop Duane Tisdale of Friendship Baptist Church. Tisdale was one of the guest speakers during the breakfast event last week.
What Tisdale had in mind was a credit union that would service the members of his congregation. That was the plan until Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur learned of the venture and informed Cowell that the vision for a church financial institution was too small a vision.
You need to start one for the whole community, she told Cowell.
The most emotional moments of the morning’s event were provided by Fran Smith, the longtime board chair of TUFCU, who was part of that start-up process. As Smith revealed when Cowell told her “we’re going to start a credit union,” Smith was initially less than impressed with that vision. However, Cowell’s passion and dedication won her over and Smith labored with her, and prayed, during those stressful times.
“We prayed so much, I think Jesus got tired,” said Smith.
Particularly stressful were the attempts by the federal governing body – National Credit Union Association – to prevent the Black-owned and operated credit union from getting off the ground. “They tried to shut us down and close us,” recalled Smith “It was a journey.” But Smith was always sustained by Cowell’s vision. “I’m doing this for the bigger picture,” Cowell would repeatedly tell her.
Sister Carol Gregory is a nun with the Sisters of Notre Dame order. That order has been particularly critical to the success of TUFCU over the years through their connections with influential decision makers in the area. Sister Gregory, and several others in the order, attended the ceremony last week.
“She is filled with goodness,” said Sister Gregory of Cowell. “And she is a woman of vision; she saw a need and responded to that need. She is a great woman called by God to the Toledo area to make a difference.”
After the comments and expressions of gratitude from those present, Cowell spoke of her own thanks for her many admirers and what has inspired her to work so tirelessly over the years to aid the community.
“One day there has to be an institution where people don’t get turned down [for loans and assistance] because of their zip codes,” she said explaining her rationale for founding the credit union.
“This was God’s journey for me. God kept sending people; God kept showing up,” she said of the faith that has kept her going through some very difficult times.
Cowell made it clear, however, that the success that has been achieved with the credit union has not been solely her accomplishment.
“If it takes a village,” she said pointing to the three dozen in attendance, “you guys are my village.”