It's 29 years since First Pennsylvania Bank — the oldest bank in America, founded 1781 — was acquired by its crosstown rival, PNB, to become part of something called CoreStates, then First Union, then Wachovia, and now Wells Fargo, based in San Francisco. With other bank mergers and automation, the sale left a lot of empty space in all those Center City office towers.

A hundred retirees filled the Cottage Green banquet hall in Northeast Philadelphia for their yearly reunion lunch last week. They marked what amounts to a vanished way of life, when Philadelphia had half a dozen multibillion-dollar banks, each with directors from old WASP families but also thousands of employees from the city's rowhouse neighborhoods — Irish, Italian, Polish, German, Jewish, African Americans. They recruited cousins and neighbors and sometimes found, not just career ladders, but friends and partners for life.

Ken Romanowski started as a part-time teller in a North Philly branch when he was a Temple student.
Joseph N. DiStefano
Ken Romanowski started as a part-time teller in a North Philly branch when he was a Temple student.

That regime dissolved with bank mergers and automation: "Oh gosh, we had hundreds of people just in the operations center, 3020 Market St. It's part of Drexel now," said Ken Romanowski, who started as a part-time teller in a North Philadelphia branch when he was a Temple student. "Today, you want to see your payments, you get it online. Back then, you had to go to the bank. The tech office would call the bookkeeper, who went to an IBM machine where the files were, and read them off to the banker, who transcribed them and gave it to the teller to give you."

Romanowski married a coworker. "You felt you were part of something special. We were the biggest bank in the city. But they were everyday people who worked there."

"Remember Tug McGraw, that pitched for the Phillies, that first time when they won the World Series [1980]? He went to work for the bank," said Carmen Christopher, a South Philadelphia native. "We were in trouble then. Money's going out the door. So we offered Tug a position, help drum up some business. Told him it's the oldest bank in the United States. He liked that. So they put him to work with me. I was a business developer.

"Guys would come up to me, 'Tug's a star. How can I get him to come to my trade show?' I'd say, 'Ha, who do you bank with?' He'd say maybe 'Fidelity.' I'd say, 'That's a shame.' So maybe the guy's business, he's got $500,000 in deposits, he's got a $1.2 million mortgage on his place. I tell him, 'We'll give you the same rates, you pay a 1 percent fee to put it together, and you get McGraw for two hours at the Christmas party.' Guy says, 'Where do I sign?' "

For McGraw, the attractions included a romance with chief executive George Butler's daughter. "A real knockout. She's in his book — the love of his life," Christopher said. McGraw died in 2004. By then, First Union had done away with Christopher: "Their managers didn't like my attitude. I said, 'I got 38 years in, my record is impeccable, you going to fire me?' A month later they shut down my division. I learned it from an auto dealer — they got a fax."

Tom McManus met his wife at the bank: "I was in loan-officer training down at Sixth and Chestnut. My boss, the chief commercial loan officer, said, 'Let's go down to the Society Hill branch and wish the girls Merry Christmas.'" McManus invited the head teller to dinner . She told him she'd just been robbed: "I thought it was a turndown." Before the week was out they had dinner, and it went from there.

Bill Marcolongo, who organized the last few reunions, said he joined the old First Pennsylvania Trust Department in 1967 when he got out of the Army. "You know how you have remote access for your 401(k) retirement plan? We built that." In 1999, First Union consolidated his unit down to Savannah, Ga. No way, he said: "I'm a Philadelphia guy." He found, to his surprise, he could make a lot more money consulting after he left the bank.

Commercial banks are hierarchical — but First Pennsylvania was set up to support a surprising democracy, says former bank lawyer Steve Chopnick, "I was a four-sport letter person at First Pennsylvania — softball, football, basketball, and long distance. Through the sports you got to know people throughout the bank. When there was a problem, they knew you."

"Something they never spelled out — that bank was primarily Catholic," said John Colligan, a commercial lender who joined the bank in 1959 and stayed on until 1983. "You'd have five brothers and sisters from one family." You'd meet your wife here, get married at her parish.

"And First Pennsylvania had really good loans, because the lender stood behind the loan, we didn't hide behind a committee. They trained you from the grass roots. You had to spend time in the branches, where they really know the customers."

Few of the reunioners' kids work in banking; they are teachers, salespeople, a lawyer. The retirees are glad to see the job market in Philadelphia finally returning to early 1990s levels after the massive bank layoffs. "We have a group in our parish (St. Denis, Havertown) to help the unemployed. Lately we've had a hard time finding people to sign up," said Romanowski cheerfully.

Colligan wasn't the only ex-banker who came up from Florida to see old friends. "We've lasted longer than the bank," he cracked.

Besides First Pennsylvania, the big Philly banks, most with roots in the early 1800s, were Philadelphia, Provident, Fidelity, PSFS, Girard, and a group of eastern Pennsylvania banks that combined as Meridian. Each had thousands of headquarters staff, favorite charities, executive volunteers for important civic and business causes. Their successors are streamlined, mostly branch offices of big companies whose bosses and growth markets are far away.

Why did the wheels come off Philly banking? The city's decline in the late 1900s, and Pennsylvania's generally slow growth (at half the U.S. rate since the Great Depression), put pressure on its banks to seek profits elsewhere, or sell to national operators. In First Pennsylvania's case, "John Bunting got too aggressive," said Colligan, citing the bank's flamboyant 1970s chief executive. "The bank was in the forefront putting together leveraged buyouts. The losses started to creep up."

"John wanted to make a name," said Colligan's old colleague Thomas Stitchberry. "He pushed a certain type of lending that had a very high risk tolerance. We had very solid loans in the branches. But he had so much of this other junk." To spread its risk, the bank invested in high-rate bonds; when Fed Chairman Paul Volcker jumped rates still higher to fight inflation, those investments lost value. The government helped put together a bailout by other Pennsylvania lenders. After Bunting, Butler tightened credit.

Even now the veterans identify with their long-ago employer's final accomplishments: "We did something people said was impossible: We hung on with both our fingernails, and we paid that loan off," said Linda Romanowski, Ken's wife. "George Butler is a saint in bankers' heaven."

Comments from a few of the many readers who wrote in response:

Bruce Toll, one of the home-building Toll brothers:

"In 1967 I went there for my first loan. I was 22 years old. I told the loan officer we wanted $30,000. Our first loan. The First Pennsy officer takes me to the vault. Shows me all that money. And says, 'You can have anything in this vault. Your father I've known since [we were kids]. He's my best friend. We'll give you anything you need.'

"They stayed with us 20 years. They were the best bank in town. Until they were taken over by Wells Fargo. All their construction guys went over to Capital One, and that's where BET [Bruce Toll's investment company] went, too — the same guys from First Pennsy did our developments in Upper Dublin and Granite Run."

Isaac Segal, ad man, late of Spiro & Associates, one of the ad agencies that worked for Philly's old banks — 'We're First Pennsylvania, and we hear you;' 'PSFS, put a little love away'

"I enjoyed your piece on the old First Pennsylvania. As a copywriter at the old Spiro & Associates ad agency, I worked on the account for over ten years. Which is why I'm writing to clarify a part of the story.

"It wasn't First Pennsy's idea to hire Tug McGraw; it was ours. In the wake of the bank's near-collapse in 1980, they clearly needed a new message… It's hard to think of anything worse for a bank than admitting it couldn't handle its own money, but we felt that being honest about what was already public knowledge was to only way to be taken seriously.

"We used this as leverage for a campaign built around the theme of 'We're motivated.' The idea being that, at the bank, our jobs are on the line and we can't afford to do business as usual… While we were working on the creative, the Phillies were making that fantastic run to the 1980 World Series. And no one exemplified the team's never-say-die, come-from-behind spirit than the guy who gave it his all again and again when the game was on the line — Tug. That's when we decided to make him the face of the campaign…

"Our first meeting with him, before the contract was signed, he mentioned that the Carpenters [who owned the Phillies] weren't exactly lavish when it came to paying relief pitchers…

"First Pennsy and all the venerable banking institutions fell victim to the deregulation of the 1990s. This may have been good for the national megabanks, but it sure wasn't good for Philly."

Carmen Christopher, quoted in the original story, responds:

"We used [the late Walter] Spiro's agency for the ad, but [CEO George] Butler closed the deal with Tug!  He told Tug, the bank was down the drain, and the public would say how can you afford Tug? So George offered $99,999, so he can say, 'It's a no-brainer for less than six figures!"… I loved working with Tug. He made me a somebody."

Larry Skvir, loan officer (retired):

"I began working at First Pennsy after I graduated from Penn State in 1970 with a degree in Economics… I was offered a position in the credit department in May 1970 at a starting salary of $8,000.

"The Bank was heavily Catholic as you said, specifically Irish Catholic.  Executive management, you reported correctly, was WASP. Mainliners like Jim Bodine, John Pemberton, J. Crosby Brown, and Roger Baldwin.

"When I started there it seemed like everyone knew everyone else. The bank was paternalistic and treated its employees very well, I suspect to keep the huge operations center at  3020 Market Street from becoming unionized.

"John Bunting bet that the Bank could fund its deteriorating loan portfolio with fixed-rate money. When the prime rate rose to unexpectedly high levels, I remember attending a bank meeting where we were told the bank lost $10 million for every one-percentage-point increase in the prime rate. Funding was so important that when I called on a large real estate developer in Western Pennsylvania and that company deposited $22 million with the bank, I was rewarded with a lunch with [CEO] George Butler.

"First Pennsy would have been one of the large national surviving banks, but we were dead in the water" from the failed high-flying loans and investments of the prior Bunting administration.