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The Catskill Mountains of New York State, where I grew up in the 1930s and '40s, have long had a connection with crime and criminals. There were periods in the twenties and early thirties when the Catskills were referred to as "Chicago with pines." Victims of the mob were often found at the bottom of Sullivan County's lakes. Arson was a frequent occurrence, usually after the summer season when buildings were empty and bills were pressing. On lazy fall afternoons, my father frequently took the family for a drive to view the remains of the latest conflagration or to Lake Louise Marie in Rock Hill, into which Murder Incorporated deposited its victims.
In the summer of 1955, after my first year of law school, I went to Ellenville, New York, to work as a secretary for Ethel and Joe Kooperman. Ellenville is a resort village about seventy-five miles north-west of New York City. It had a year-round population of 4,200, which swelled in the summer.
Ethel and Joe, a husband-and-wife legal team, had been a part of my life since my family moved to Woodridge, New York, in 1936. Although my father's main occupation there had been to run a rooming house, he also invested in second mortgages. Ethel and Joe, in addition to running their law office, engaged in real estate transactions and advised my father on second mortgage investments.
I rented a room in the home of a local family, the Van Gorders, and boarded across the street at the boarding house of Mrs. "Cookie" Peritz. Joe and Ethel had their offices at 90 North Main Street in a lovely old building, the Wayside Inn (most of which, unfortunately, burned down in the '60s). I did routine legal secretarial work, and my duties included frequent visits to the Home National Bank, a block from the office, to make deposits and withdrawals for the firm.
The bank, located in a modest one-story building at 88 Canal Street, had been founded in 1873, and was the largest of Ellenville's three banks. Being inside the bank was an experience, however, because of the reverential air everyone had toward its president, William Richard Rose. He was viewed as akin to a god by his employees. Whenever I was in the bank, someone was always running about with a document that had to be signed, calling, "Mr. Rose, Mr. Rose." Eventually, Rose would appear, a portly fifty-year old man, just short of six feet tall, with thinning sandy hair. A hush would fall over the bank as he signed the document. In the bank, Rose was the absolute master.
He was in fact Mr. Ellenville. One writer said that William Rose "may be the most legendary figure to come out of the Catskills since Rip Van Winkle." He was the village's leading citizen, its most influential civic leader, and its most eligible bachelor. He dated occasionally but never married. He lived with his eighty-three year old mother, an independently wealthy widow who was a member of an old Ellenville family. Their home was a seventeen-room mansion of gingerbread, Victorian architecture, atop a knoll at 155 South Main Street.
His late grandfather and father, both also named William, were bankers before him. His grandfather had founded the bank, and his father had served as its president. The William Rose of my day, who was born in 1906, had begun working at the bank summers when he was sixteen. By 1929, at the age of twenty-three, he was a clerk, and in 1940 he became the bank's president.
Ellenville was prospering in the mid-'50s. Part of the community's economy was in the numerous resorts, the most well known of which was the Nevele Hotel, but increasingly Ellenville had developed industries. It was home to the Channel Master Corporation, one of the country's largest manufacturers of antennae, employing 1,500 people; the Ulster Knife Company, Inc., employing about 250; and many smaller enterprises. All this development had been fostered by Rose. Upon becoming bank president, he had initiated a policy of extraordinarily liberal credit and also encouraged instalment loans. The byword in Ellenville was, "If you need money, see Uncle Bill." The bank flourished, too. It was doing 70 per cent of the area's commercial business, and employment tripled from ten to thirty during his presidency. Rose had almost no intimate friends, but almost everybody liked him.
He was rumored to be a multimillionaire. He belonged to the Chamber of Commerce, was past president of the six-county District 8 of the New York State Bankers' Association, past president of the Shawangunk Country Club, treasurer and head usher of the local Methodist Church, and a member of the Scoresby Volunteer Hook and Ladder Company. He had gone to Harvard and served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy during World War II. As the most prominent veteran in the village, he was always grand marshall of the military parades.
But he had not lost the common touch. He drove a 1952 two-door Plymouth sedan. He left home at 7 AM every day carrying his lunch--a fried egg sandwich in a little wicker basket--and stopped off en route to his office for a container of milk. He usually remained at the bank until 7 PM or later.
After my summer in Ellenville, I returned to Florida for my second year of law school. A little over a year later, I was studying in my den one evening when my mother called me into the living room to watch TV. She did this frequently as she and my father believed I spent too much time with my books, and they tried to pull me away from my studies. So I did not pay too much attention until she called again, "Hurry," she said. "Ellenville's on the news." I ran right in, wondering what little Ellenville had done to warrant coverage on the Miami news show. But there it was on the screen--not only Ellenville, but the camera was zooming in on the Home National Bank. A minute later, the face of Rose appeared. He had just been arrested by the FBI!
It had begun on Friday, November 30, 1956, as Ellenville was looking forward to a merry Christmas. National bank examiners, acting on the complaint of a depositor, seized the bank's books. They discovered that Rose had misappropriated half a million dollars of the bank's money. He hadn't done it for financial gain; his stocks, bonds, and cash amounted to no more than $135,000 (all of which he later turned over to the receiver). He was apparently motivated by a desire to create a more prosperous Ellenville and was no doubt also drunk with his power in the bank and the community. And so, like many in positions of power, he seriously overstepped the boundaries. He was profligate with the bank's money and even his own. The most spectacular example involved the Anjopa Board and Paper Manufacturing Company. He lent Anjopa, a financially shaky enterprise, not only the bank's money but also his own, and at one point, he personally took over the financial operation of the company's mill.
Because the bank was so much a part of his life, he forgot the separation between the bank and himself. In his mind, they were one. He made too many loans, and they were often given without collateral and for excessive periods of time. He falsified the bank's records to hide these activities and fooled the bank examiners for years. Two factors led to his undoing. One was a persistent bank examiner named George A. Monahan, who continued to have misgivings about the financial condition of the bank and to conduct examinations of its books. The other was the failure of a depositor's check to clear. The depositor got in touch with the Federal Reserve Bank, and the fateful bank examination took place.
When the examiners confronted Rose with their initial discovery that Black Friday, he resigned as president on the spot. He was arrested that evening at his home by the FBI. The following morning, the bank's customers swarmed to the bank, not to withdraw funds, but to deposit more as expressions of confidence. One depositor, Ben Slutsky, the owner of the Nevele Hotel, which already had a $100,000 account in the bank, pledged another $100,000 by Monday. And, true to his word, Slutsky withdrew $102,000 from other bank accounts and deposited it in Rose's bank. Mayor Eugene Glusker told people that "Bill Rose is a great public benefactor. He's done a remarkable job for the small business man and for private people. We're all united in his behalf."
That Sunday night, two hundred civic and business leaders met to reaffirm their affection and regard for Uncle Bill. Monday, packing crates were hammered together and a booth erected to collect signatures of support. That evening, there was an open air meeting in front of the petition booth with a few short speeches and a great deal of cheering. Eventually, almost three thousand signatures were collected.
One group of four Protestant ministers went against the tide. They issued a statement stating, in part, that they could not condone activities that were unlawful. One of the signers was the pastor of the Ellenville Methodist Church, where two years earlier Rose had had to relinquish his position as treasurer because his financial reports were inadequate.
Then it was learned that Rose, who was free on $25,000 bail, had been rearrested by the FBI. The check for his bail had been drawn on the now-defunct Home National Bank and, furthermore, the amount he had misappropriated amounted to $l.4 million rather than half a million. The chief recipients of this largesse had been Anjopa and the Hotel Zeiger of Fallsburg, with overdrafts of $926,000 and $235,000, respectively. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) ordered the bank closed; it was to go into receivership for liquidation. The Ellenville Journal for December 6, 1956, in reporting these events, had the following box on its front page:
WRITTEN WITH REGRET The Journal--no different from others in the community--writes with regret of the events of the past week. . . .
The people of Ellenville began to regret it, too, and to reevaluate their support for Uncle Bill. The petition of support was withdrawn from circulation. Five days after the bank was closed, Ellenville's mayor and leading business persons flew to Washington to confer with Treasury officials. As a result of their negotiations, in what was regarded as a miracle of accomplishment in banking circles, eighteen days after the bank was closed, its successor, the Ellenville National Bank, opened for business in the same building as its predecessor. It continues to function to this day, with many branches in the Hudson Valley.
In mid-October 1957, Rose pleaded guilty to seventeen counts of bank fraud, and in December he was given a five-year sentence. During his incarceration at the federal correctional institution in Danbury, Connecticut, he was a model prisoner. As a result, in August of 1959, he was granted parole as of October 1. The warden released him on September 2, however, citing his work in the institution's hospital as the reason for his early release. Thus, after serving twenty-one months of his sentence, on a light drizzly morning, Rose returned to Ellenville to live with his mother. No welcoming committee was on hand to greet him on his return.
Rose resumed the occupation he had taken up while waiting to serve his sentence. Had you lived in Ellenville then, you might have seen him at work. If your toilet was stuck and you called a plumber, the man who would come to your door might very well be a portly, familiar-looking man with thinning sandy hair--Bill Rose.