In 1900, when his fellow Czechoslovakian immigrants in Northeast Baltimore had trouble getting credit at the established banks, Joseph Klecka pooled $79 collected from eight friends and opened the Bohemian Building Loan and Savings Association. Eighty-five years later, associations with similar roots are still making home loans to a neighborhood clientele, many of them children or grandchildren of former customers.
Associations like Slovan Building and Loan, Kosciuszko Permanent and Canton-Pulaski Polish are the little guys in the savings and loan industry. While their big brothers have expanded into riskier ventures over the past several decades, the little guys still operate like the corner drugstore.
Slovan, which is Bohemian for "free man," is open for business only two hours a week, Tuesday nights, just as it has been since it opened in 1925. The institution makes home loans only and has foreclosed on just five mortgages in 60 years. When customers have trouble making payments, "we try to work it out," said Slovan attorney Anthony J. Brozik.
"The small building associations are just like the ma and pa stores," said Brozik, who has been with Slovan for 35 years. "They cannot compete with the supermarkets, and yet they have to exist . . . . The neighborhood depends on them."
As Maryland's elected officials have huddled over the current savings and loan crisis, it has been business as usual at most of the small institutions. Slovan and other privately insured associations are included in the executive order limiting monthly withdrawals to $1,000, but few have experienced long lines of anxious customers.
"I have faith in these people, so I didn't take out $1,000," said Anthony Matesic, who keeps a savings account at Light Street Saving and Building Association, like his mother-in-law before him. "We know these people for 40 years."
On a recent visit to Light Street, he pointed to the association's 94-year-old president, George R. Soth, who joined the company in 1926 and still works behind the counter every day. "He's a cautious man," said Matesic, a Yugoslav immigrant and retired shipyard worker. "It gives me confidence."
Matesic is typical of customers at these institutions, said Charles Kresslein, president of the Maryland League of Financial Institutions, the main trade association for the Maryland savings and loan industry.
"Their families have been doing business with them for 50 years or 75 years," he said. "Maybe they're a less-sophisticated investor. They couldn't care less if they can get 1 percent more downtown. They'll take 1 percent less and walk down the street."
Kresslein said his organization represents about 30 institutions with less than $2 million in assets. According to figures from the Maryland Savings-Share Insurance Corp. (MSSIC), the state's private insurer of savings and loans, there are about 75 associations with less than $40 million in assets.
That figure has been proposed by Gov. Harry Hughes as the cutoff above which institutions would be required to apply for federal insurance. Those with assets of less than $40 million but more than $15 million could become members of a state insurance fund created to replace MSSIC for two years.
Associations with assets of less than $15 million would be insured by a newly created Maryand Deposit Insurance Fund for up to four years, but the new legislation leaves their ultimate fate in doubt. Many could not meet requirements for federal insurance, such as operating on a full-time basis.
"It's conceivable that several associations such as my own would merge," said James Swinson, Slovan's president. "We're not open full time -- the feds wouldn't want anything to do with us."
State Del. Gary Alexander (D-Prince George's) was not optimistic. "The little S&Ls are gone. Either they will be swallowed up, merged into others that qualify for FSLIC Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. , or they'll be gone."
Over the years these institutions have remained stable by limiting their operations to low-risk home mortgages, the purpose for which S&Ls originally were established.
"They wouldn't consider making a mortgage outside the neighborhood. They're familiar with the property. They're familiar with the neighborhood," Kresslein said. "They don't have any ambition to become a multimillion-dollar company. They just remain small to do their thing in the community."
The community ties began, in many cases, when European immigrants banded together to help each other finance their first homes. Unable to speak English fluently and without a credit history, many families were rejected when they applied for loans at established banks.
Bohemian Building Loan and Savings Association changed its name in 1965 to Slavie Savings and Loan Association, "because we didn't want to be known as an ethnic group," said Richard K. Riha, association president and grandson of the founder. "Slavie," he said, is Bohemian for "goddess of plenty."
Many of the smaller thrifts say they will opt for the state fund to avoid the bureaucracy and paper work that federal insurance entails.
"We're hoping to come out okay," said Peter Kutz, president of Kosciuszko Permanent Savings and Loan. "We've been in business for 90 years . . . We expect to be here for another 90."