If Virginia Varela ever needs a reminder about the legacy of customer service at Bank of Rio Vista, all she has to do is glance at the faded piece of driftwood in her office. The wood is an actual check for $2.50, written in cursive with paint and cashed long ago by the bank.
"I think it was kind of a joke, but it demonstrates the bank's customer service," said Varela, the bank president and chief executive officer. She also has heard of checks written on napkins and honored, and checks signed by illiterate farmers and ranchers who merely scribbled a symbol for their signatures.
The Bank of Rio Vista was founded in the small Delta town in 1904 and is still going strong today. Through 107 years of social and economic change, it has steered clear of mergers, acquisitions and bailouts to remain a small, independent, family-owned community bank.
"I hear so many stories about how the bank helped people through the years with businesses or personal needs," Varela said. "It's been tied to the community from the beginning and been a resource to draw from."
Varela is herself making history in this legend-drenched, hardworking farming and fishing town of 7,200. She became the first female president in the bank's history in December, joining a female primary shareholder and a chairwoman of the board to form a decidedly modern leadership team.
A recent study by the American Banking Association showed that more than 80 percent of bank presidents nationwide are white males, but John Hall, a community banking expert at ABA, said women are increasingly taking the lead, especially of smaller banks.
"Banks have always been a great opportunity for women to move up in an office environment, and now we're seeing more and more step up to the role of chief executive," Hall said.
Varela, 52, is a San Francisco native with a background in federal banking regulation, spending 26 years as a senior manager at the U.S. Treasury Department in the nation's capital. She's proud to be a part of a growing wave of professional women in the banking business.
"Diversity helps corporate governance," she said. "Women in a position of decision-making and policymaking add to the overall success of a bank, or any business. It makes for a more well-rounded approach and leads to better leadership, more perspectives and viewpoints."
Rio Vista, a midpoint for steamship travel between San Francisco and Sacramento, was a salmon fishing community before the 1870s, when gold miners and immigrant families settled in the Delta to farm.
"Because it started as a small bank, by farmers and businessmen who were hardworking and had stock in the bank, it's considered a workingman's kind of bank," said Phil Pezzaglia, curator of the Rio Vista Museum.
He said banking at the turn of the 20th century was cumbersome. People hid their money at home, or general stores and lumberyards stored clients' money in their safes. Wells Fargo agents shipped money to and from safes in San Francisco by steamship.
One man in the now- defunct Delta town of Paintersville operated a "posthole bank," meaning he dug holes with a tool and buried money for clients, he said.
A group of farmers and businessmen opened the Bank of Rio Vista in the 200 block of Main Street in 1904. While the bank has moved into newer digs, the old building survives as a veterinarian's office. The lead-lined, walk-in safe of the bank building now serves as an X-ray room, Pezzaglia said.
The bank started out with five employees. Today, it has 43 employees, $175 million in assets and three branches.
Stability is a cornerstone of the bank. In its 107-year history, Varela is only the seventh president. One president, Wallace McCormack, served for 56 years. He reportedly was one of the first bankers in the area to give loans to Japanese Americans returning from internment camps after World War II, and Varela said some descendants of those customers still do business with the bank out of respect for that.
Varela said consistency helped the Bank of Rio Vista and many other community banks weather the recent economic downturn.
"We have several families who have been customers for generations, and some employees have been here for more than 30 years," Varela said. "We attract customers who are tired of uncertainty of larger banks, tired of banks changing hands and names."