March 8 is International Women’s Day and we thought this would be a good time to talk about the first woman hired at Vinton County National Bank. Read on to learn about an inspiring woman who blazed a trail for generations of women to follow.
When Belle Jenkins began working at Vinton County National Bank, women had won the right to vote only five years before. It was uncommon to find a woman working in a bank and it was considered unlikely that a woman would rise through the ranks of a bank to establish a career and eventually hold the title of Vice President. Yet, Belle did just that. In fact she served the bank for 55 years, became Senior Vice President, was appointed to the bank’s Board of Directors in 1967 and commanded the respect of everyone around her.
Belle began working for the bank in 1925, long before most banks had recognized the value and importance of women in business. Belle did not apply for the job. Instead, Bank President Aaron Will actually sought out Belle, a McArthur area native and 1925 graduate of Campbell Commercial School in Cincinnati.
Many people in Vinton County remember Belle as the most distinguished woman in the bank. By all accounts, Belle was a true lady but she was demanding, a perfectionist who expected only the best from her coworkers and herself. In fact, many people who worked with Belle admit that they found her intimidating.
Kathy Caudill retired from the bank in 2014 after nearly 48 years of service. She worked with Belle from 1966 until Belle’s death in 1980. “Belle was a woman who held her own in what was a man’s world of banking. She paved the way for women to take on more than the secretarial or clerical roles of banking. She was always the lady, stern faced, beautifully coifed, impeccably dressed, and kept her business and personal lives separate. Those things were plenty to garner the respect of coworkers and bank customers. But we were still scared of her,” Kathy explained.
Bank retiree Christyne Calvin and daughter of former bank president John G. Will admitted that she and other young employees were daunted by her presence. “She was pretty imposing with her silver-white hair in its signature French twist and stern, professional manner. We were all afraid of her, except my Dad who could get away with teasingly calling her ‘Belly’ to her face,” Calvin recalled.
She did work to maintain a separation of personal and work and believed that a professional front should always be maintained at the bank. That’s why many coworkers did not realize the extent of the rich hobbies and interests she had outside work. Belle loved gardening and often brought flowers from the backyard garden of her McArthur home. She took ballroom dancing and traveled extensively, served many years as volunteer Savings Bond Chairman, was a member of the McArthur Church of Christ and McArthur Business and Professional Women’s Club. Belle also enjoyed amateur photography, putting this hobby to work recording her travel and other experiences.
In 1967, the Athens Messenger interviewed Belle for their Speaking of Women column. Here is a portion of their profile: She describes herself as a “look and shoot” camera fan and says she gets a lot of enjoyment from the color slides which she shoots on vacation trips as well as locally. Her camera also comes in handy to record the garden which she finds time to cultivate each season.
Coworkers did know that she drove to Columbus when the bank closed on Thursday afternoons to shop and to have her hair done. This was evident as she was one of the best dressed women in town with beautiful accessories and stylish hair. She valued professionalism and was known to send home young employees who pushed the envelope with their attire.
Kathy Caudill talked about that too. “Belle expected bank employees to present themselves in a professional manner. When anyone came to work dressed ‘inappropriately,’ he or she could expect to be sent home to change. It happened,” Kathy recalled. “And then pant suits became the fashion for women! It took a while but a memo was issued permitting us to wear them. And Belle looked fantastic in hers! Belle’s influence within the bank was greatly missed.”
Kathy also told a humorous story that illustrates the human side of Belle Jenkins. “I was in my first week of working at VCNB, in bookkeeping in the basement.Just as Belle came down the steps and around the corner, I dropped a large drawer of checks, sending them all over. Having had the fear instilled in me, I was sure my first week would also be my last. I was greatly relieved when she actually laughed and said “We all have those days!” and helped me pick them up. I learned early on that there was a human side there,” Kathy recalled.
Belle Slagle Jenkins was born in Jackson Township to C. Slagle and Margaret Ann Miller Slagel Allison. She was married to Elmer (Zeke) Jenkins until his death in 1950. The pair had attended the Vinton County Centennial Celebration that night, reveling with friends, before he passed away at home of an apparent heart attack.
She was found dead in her home on November 24, 1980. Belle had died in her sleep of an apparent heart attack at the age of 75. This bank rarely closes for unexpected reasons but both the McArthur and Wilkesville offices closed for her funeral.
Vinton County Courier columnist Gerry Frye noted Belle’s death in her popular column. “She has been a major part of the institution (the bank) since 1925 – an attractive lady who never lost her class and stayed forever young. I will miss her as a friend and advisor.”
While Belle has been gone for almost 37 years, her presence is still felt within the bank. She was truly a pioneer who paved the way for women in the VCNB Family and hundreds of women have enjoyed positions with the bank because of her.