Ladene Bray grew up wanting to help people and had dreams of someday becoming a nurse. Though she ultimately decided on working at a local bank, she has still made an impact on people in her community.
She was born in Evening Shade, and grew up there. Although she had three brothers, she said her parents were always taking care of others, along with her and her siblings.
“When I was growing up, my mother and daddy took care of somebody in our family all the time,” Bray said. “My dad’s sister lived with us; my mom’s great aunt lived with us. My grandparents on my mother’s side lived with us before they passed away. My mother and daddy always took care of someone, our whole life.”
Bray said watching her parents take care of others made her want to take care of people like a nurse does. Bray said her parents were the biggest influence in her life and taught her to work hard at whatever job she was given. Her father was the head sawyer at a sawmill until she was 12 years old when her uncle purchased a grocery store in Evening Shade.
“My dad managed that store, and the first year that he managed the store, he and I ran it,” she said. “I was 12 years old. That’s when I got my first experience working with the public.”
And she has been serving the community’s residents ever since.
“While we were working in the store, Vinalee McCord and her husband owned a movie theater in Evening Shade, and they observed us on a daily basis [at the grocery store],” Bray said. “They asked me and my baby brother if we would like a job working at the movie theater.”
When Bray and her brother were hired, she sold the movie tickets, while he took them from the patrons as they went in to see movies.
“After I sold the tickets, I ran the concession stand. I did that for several years, and the year I graduated from high school, Mrs. McCord was working at the courthouse for the county school supervisor’s office,” Bray said. “She asked me, ‘Ladene, would you like to have my job?’ And I said, ‘Well, sure.’”
Bray said her boss at the movie theater had about a year left at her job at the courthouse and promised the job to Bray when she graduated from high school.
“As soon as I graduated from high school, I went to work for the county school supervisor,” she said. “I worked there for two years, and when my husband, Jimmy, got out of the service — he was in Korea — we moved to Little Rock.”
Bray then tried her hand at the backside of retail.
“I went to work for Pruitt Hide and Fur Co. in Little Rock in their office, taking care of the books and payroll and quarterly reports,” she said. “Then we moved back to Batesville in 1968, and our son was born in August of 1969.”
Bray stayed home with her son, Donie, for a year and decided she wanted to go back to work.
“I went to the International Shoe Co. and applied for a job,” Bray said. “I told [the personnel director] that I could do anything there is to do except run a sewing machine.”
After the director told her there was an opening, Bray said, she completed the necessary paperwork, but there was a problem.
“We got all the paperwork filled out, and she sat me down in front of a sewing machine,” Bray said. “I said, ‘Is this what you’re planning for me to do?’ And she said, ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘I’m telling you now that I’m quitting before I ever get started.’”
Though her job-search quest at the International Shoe Co. proved to be unsuccessful, Bray said, she made one more stop before she stopped job hunting for the day.
“I started to go home, and I decided I would go by Citizens Bank and see if they had an opening,” she said.
She had no way of foreseeing how stopping at the bank would change her life. She went into Citizens Bank, where she introduced herself to the president of the bank, Manuel Conyers.
“He said, ‘Hmm, Bray, what was your maiden name?’ I said, ‘Qualls,’ and he said, ‘Qualls from Evening Shade?’” Bray said.
Conyers then asked Bray if she knew a Tom Qualls, and then he made a connection. Tom was her grandfather, whom she never knew.
“He died when my dad was 16 years old, so we never met him,” Bray said.
After that, Conyers spent an hour telling Bray about how her grandfather was an honest man.
“He told me how he was a community-minded person and how he would take his team and wagon and come to Batesville and gather groceries,” she said. “It would take him a day to get down there and a day to get back. When he’d get back, he would give all of those supplies to people in Evening Shade and Sidney.”
Though he spent an hour visiting with Bray, Conyers told her he didn’t have an opening for her at Citizens Bank.
“He told me to go home and write a resumé and send it back to him, and he would remember me. So I thanked him and I left,” Bray said. “It took me about five minutes to get home, and when I walked in the door, my phone was ringing.”
When Bray picked up the phone, it was Conyers.
“He said, ‘I’ve made an opening for you. Can you come in Monday?’” she said. “I said, ‘Yes sir, I sure can.’ I’ve been there ever since.”
That was 43 years and four months ago. Bray’s last day at the bank was Jan. 3.
“I started out in bookkeeping, then became a walk-up teller, then drive-up teller, then went to the note department as a teller and then became supervisor of the note department. Then I became vice president and consumer loan officer, [moving on to] commercial loan officer, then to the head of special assets,” Bray said. “I worked in almost every department of the bank.”
The only department of the bank Bray did not work in was the trust department, and she never worked on the proof machine, she said. She said she started from the bottom at the bank and worked her way up.
“When I graduated from high school, a college degree was not nearly as important as it is today, so when I was given an opportunity to work, I took advantage of it,” Bray said. “The bank has been very good to me.”
Bray saw tremendous growth in the bank in her 43 years of working there.
“We’ve grown about 35 times since I went to work there, and we now have 10 locations,” she said. “When I went to work there, I was employee No. 18, and today, there are about 140 employees.”
Along with the bank changing and growing, Bray said, she saw banking technology develop through the years.
“I’ve seen lots of changes over the years,” she said. “Everything was done on the old NCR posting machines when I went to work, and now everything is done by computers. I can remember when people told us just a few years ago that there would not be anymore cash, and everything would be done with plastic cards.”
Bray said she’s been amazed by the developments in banking technology, but this year, she decided to step down from her position as a commercial loan officer and the head of special assets at Citizens Bank in Batesville.
“My husband had cancer this past year, and I’m not getting any younger, and I just decided that it was time for me to slow down a little bit,” Bray said.
Bray’s announcement of her retirement left some of her regular customers feeling emotional.
“I loved waiting on people and helping them,” she said. “I had customers come by and cry when I left. I had men come by and cry, and I had women come by and cry. They just didn’t know what they were going to do.”
Bray said she reassured her customers and let them know they were in good hands.
She doesn’t have any big plans for her retirement, but looks forward to spending time on her cattle farm with her husband in Evening Shade.
“I’ve done pretty much what I wanted to do my whole life, but the most important thing to me is living my life so one of these days I can be in heaven,” Bray said.
Staff writer Lisa Burnett can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or email@example.com.