This article was written by Sara Watkins for GCUA.
When Eloise Woods was young, she was involved in a terrible car crash that left her in a body cast through most of high school. Doctors said she would never walk again. To those whoknew her, it came as no surprise that through sheer determination and hard work, she proved those doctors wrong.
Eloise didn’t just walk, she took off. She catapulted into the Georgia credit union world and left a well-worn path for women in the workforce who came behind her. As the first woman named CEO of a Georgia credit union, she was decades ahead of her time. Remembered as a pioneer in the industry, she was well-known for her progressive vision through a storied 52-year career. And there was that signature silver streak she kept in her perfectly-styled hair.
A Ground-Breaking Career
Eloise A. Woods was born on Jan. 19, 1927 in Okeechobee, Fla. She married Roy Woods in 1946 and they had a daughter in 1954. After graduating with a degree in accounting from Florida Southern University, Eloise moved to Atlanta to work at a CPA firm. She began her credit union career at the age of 20 when she was hired as the first full-time employee at Georgia Telco Credit Union (now Georgia’s Own). She moved up the ranks from manager to President and CEO in 1960. Being the first woman named CEO at a credit union in Georgia, she broke many barriers for women in the workforce.
“She was the first credit union president I met when I came to Associated,” said Dan Maslia, retired President/CEO of Associated Credit Union. “And she really, really impressed me. A woman as the president of a credit union was unheard of back then. She was a pioneer.”
Georgia Telco was a small credit union when Eloise began working there. Under her leadership, it grew to $700 million in assets and was the third largest credit union in Georgia by the time she retired in 1999.
“In the 1980s, no major decision involving the Georgia credit union community happened without involvement and support from Eloise Woods,” said Mike Mercer, President/CEO of Georgia Credit Union Affiliates.
Ahead of her time, Eloise made a name for herself in the credit union boys’ club, all the while blazing a trail for women eager to succeed in the industry. She served on many boards at the local, state and national level – most of the time, as the first woman ever.
Her greatest professional achievement came in 1977 when she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter as Chairman of the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) Advisory Board, a title she took very seriously. And literally.
“Somebody asked if they should call her chairwoman instead and she said, ‘I have worked this hard to become chairman; I want to be called chairman,’” remembered Ralph Jones, who served on Georgia Credit Union League Board of Directors with her.
Ever the dignified business woman, Eloise was, by all accounts, the definition of a lady. She was extremely well-dressed, well-spoken and well-educated. She was often the only woman in the room when credit union leaders gathered.
“I remember she told me she was in some kind of bill or proclamation signing with (then) Georgia Governor Herman Talmadge,” her daughter, Mickey Merkel, recalled. “The governor chewed tobacco and as he spit in his spittoon, it bounced on her leg. She just had to gracefully wipe it away and move on.”
Among the many accomplishments throughout her career, Eloise co-founded and was President of the National Association of Telephone Credit Unions and also co-founded and served as President of the Georgia Deposit Insurance Corporation. Additionally, she led Georgia Telco to become the only credit union to invest in AVAIL (and later STAR) ATM Network, which provided a substantial payoff down the road.
Her extensive career in credit unions was recognized in 1992, when she received the Georgia Credit Union Affiliates Lifetime Achievement Award. Upon her passing in 2010, GCUA created an award in her name. The Eloise Woods Distinguished Service Award honors individuals who have worked to advance cooperative finance for the benefit of Georgia citizens.
“She had a personality that when she walked into a room, everybody noticed her,” said Charlotte Ayers, retired President/CEO of Georgia’s Own Credit Union. “She looked at all sides of any situation, any program we wanted to put in place, she saw all sides of it. She was my friend, as well as my mentor and I sure enjoyed working for her.”
A People Helping People Mentality
Momentous professional achievements aside, Eloise never hesitated to help other credit unions, often handing out loans to smaller ones if they encountered a hurdle they couldn’t clear. She had a desire to see them succeed. She would go to smaller credit unions that sometimes only had a few employees, gather and go through their books, and help them prepare their annual reports.
“She didn’t have to do that at her level; she could have assigned people to do that,” said Richard Kessler, former retained counsel for Georgia Credit Union Affiliates. “But she did it, because most of the time, they only had a couple of employees and she would just help them. It was just amazing how she did that. She was always helping people in that regard.”
Eloise was passionate about helping professional women, too. For many years under her leadership, Georgia Telco was an all-female organization, which was quite unusual in those days. She mentored and encouraged and taught; but most importantly, she inspired and influenced other women to follow in her footsteps in an industry that, at the time, was predominantly run by men.
“Eloise was truly a role model and a great mentor,” said Janet Davis, retired President/CEO of Kinetic Credit Union based in Columbus, GA. “I looked up to her and all of her accomplishments that blazed the trail for women in our industry today. She was always open to share and help foster those following her. Her cooperative spirit was an example for us all. I will always treasure her leadership and guidance that assisted me in my career as a CEO.”
A Legacy that Lives On
At her funeral, Eloise’s daughter read the poem “The Dash” by Linda Ellis (1996). The poem refers to the dash on a tombstone between the date of birth and the date of death; the years, however fleeting, that matter most.
“Eloise cared about the credit union,” said Linda Finch, who served under Woods as former CFO of Georgia Telco. “She always believed in it. It wasn’t just a job to her.”
What Eloise accomplished professionally during her “dash” was nothing short of remarkable: She served 52 years in Georgia credit unions as a pioneer, a visionary who forged a place for women in a male-dominated field and a leader who left a special imprint on the industry as a whole. She also was a loving wife, mother and grandmother.
And she was the young girl who would not accept the fact that she would never walk again. She was Eloise, the one and only.
Much like her trademark silver streak, her life is a legacy that will never be forgotten.