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John Eller is a man who truly has devoted his life to serving people. After 41 years of serving on Marine FCU’s Board of Directors, he has announced his retirement. Prior to his time on our Board, he served in the United States Marine Corps for 31 years over the course of two wars … Korea and Vietnam.
His hard-working spirit and dedication to service has had an impact on our organization and the people we serve.
In the interview below, he shares a glimpse of his life experiences of serving in the United States Marine Corps and on the Marine FCU Board. Read on or watch the complete interview to learn about a man who puts service above self in everything he does.
The Choice To Serve.
What made you want to serve on the Board?
I wanted to serve my fellow marines. I was active duty at the time. It’s all about people helping people. It didn’t take a big sales pitch to get me to volunteer to become part of Marine Federal. It just came automatic. I wanted to help people.
What’s the most rewarding moment of your time on the Board?
The biggest and the best reward was the opportunity to go to schools and conferences through the Credit Union National Association. I would say I have an equivalent of a master’s degree in credit union courses.
How has Marine Federal positively evolved since your service on the Board?
Well, I was first a part of the Supervisory Committee in 1977, then became a board member in 1980 after my retirement from the Marine Corps, and then was elected Chairman in 1981. We were aboard Camp Lejeune in the lower deck of the barracks. Staff NCOs were living above us.
One of the things we discussed was serving the members living in town. We bought the land over at Brynn Marr and that was our first and one of our best branches. Then we began to grow. Next was Gum Branch. That was a good location since there were a lot of retirees in the Northwoods area.
I was a brick and mortar man. I make no apologies … I was a brick and mortar man. But, today we live in technology. As a member of Marine Federal, you don’t need a branch. You can take your smart phone or computer and stay in contact with us.
How do you feel you contributed to the success of Marine Federal?
Well, I’m too humble to really say too much. I will say something … I have the interest of Marine Federal in my heart all the time.
I was ready to take the courses and was offered to volunteer. I was also the Vice Chairman of the National Association of Credit Unions and I’ve learned a lot, and brought that back to Marine Federal.
For instance, in 1983 we had heard of the initial ATM. I’ve never seen one and had the opportunity to go down to a credit union in San Franciso and saw one and said we gotta have one! We have ATMs scattered all over.
I believe in member service. Quality member service. I believe employees should be humble in serving the member, and going all the way. Let that member know that they are there to serve them and not just a fixture in the wall. And we have that. We’ve got the best people in the world. My retirement … it’s emotional. I hate to really retiree, but will still be in and out as long as I can walk and get around.
Once a Marine. Always A Marine.
When did you enlist?
I tried to enlist in the United States Marine Corps at 16 years old, but the recruiter said he would need to talk to my parents first. The recruiter softened them up real quick and as soon as I turned 17 he had me on the hook.
Why did you pick the United States Marine Corps to join?
Back in Winston Salem, they had a sign outside the post office. It was an A-frame sign they call it. I know that name because I spent six years of recruiting duty later in my career. And on the A-frame was a Marine in his dress blues saying that only a few can serve.
There was another sign around the corner that said a proud 100,000 can serve. Well, I found out that when I joined the USMC, there was only 63,000 Marines on active duty. The rest of them were counted among reserves.
Did you stay in touch with your family during war?
Yes, every chance I had I wrote a letter to my mother. I used the lid from a C-ration box. All I had to do was write a note and put free in the top right corner and it got to her in three days, all the way to Winston Salem.
My mother wrote me daily .. and you can imagine what a mother had to say in her letter. But I never wrote anything that would worry her, and I also did this with my wife in Vietnam.
Every night, if I found a minute… I wrote a letter. And I made it sound like I was in some resort area. You don’t tell the truth. You don’t tell a lie … but you don’t tell the truth. It worries your family. I used to tell my men, don’t write down what you experienced today because it would scare your mom and dad. Don’t try to impress some young girl … they will go tell your mom.
When you were in Vietnam, was there something special you did for good luck?
For good luck? Yeah, I prayed every night. And every battle I prayed. And I asked the Lord to spare me and bring me back home to my family. Our chaplain, Father Kenny … I became very acquainted with him. He was a great guy.
My troops knew I was a Christian and they trusted me. I didn’t hesitate to sit down and tell my men we need to pray. You’ve been trained to do this and to do that but … we need a little bit more
How did you entertain yourself overseas?
One day, I heard on the radio that cool was coming for a visit to see the man with the stars. We had a Major General running the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade. And I said cool? … Ice cream … they’re sending ice cream to the ship! I told Bob Foreit (he was a helicopter support team and my platoon guide) to get that helicopter over here. We were up on a hill probably about 10 miles away from the ship, but we could see it. I said ‘wave them in’ and we took that ice cream off of the helicopter. And the troops had ice cream.
I got chewed out but laughed about it. That’s probably the reason I never made General.
What was the food like?
C-rations … they were very dull. *laughing
We had spaghetti and meatballs with a lot of grease. But you had a lot of protein, which gave you energy. You had franks and beans, which had a lot of carbs and that kept you warm. Peanut butter also keeps you warm. If you’re cold, get a peanut butter and white bread sandwich.
How did your service and experiences affect your life?
It made a better person out of me. I call it living in real time. The Marine Corps showed me reality. I’ll be honest, when I retired here at Camp Lejeune I thought about moving back to Winston Salem and building a house on some land. But my friends are here … men and women that I served with, and that affected me.
From the President/CEO
From the Battlefield to the Boardroom
Jeff Clark, President/CEO, Marine FCU
How does one sum up a 41-year career of volunteering in a single article? Or honor a man who defined Esprit de Corps on and off the battlefield?
In May, John Eller stood among his fellow Marine FCU Board Members and tendered his resignation. It was time. As you read on, you’ll understand why.
Eller earned the title of United States Marine after graduating from boot camp in 1949. His 31-year military career took him through several tours of duty. One in 1967 in particular became a part of history. Following a battlefield commission, 2nd Lieutenant Eller engaged in the Battle of Khe Sanh, leading 220 Marines from Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines in what became a legendary fight for control over a strategic area in Vietnam.
The following year, Eller was stationed back at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina and became a member of Marine Federal Credit Union.
While still on active duty in 1977, Eller volunteered to serve on the Supervisory Committee at the credit union. After retiring from the Marine Corps in 1980, he was appointed a board member and went on to serve as the Chairman of the Board of Directors from 1981 to 2005.
Under his leadership, Marine FCU introduced Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs), checking accounts, credit cards, mortgages, and Touch Teller (24-hour telephonic account access) in the 80s. The 90s brought additional branches, ATMs, and money market accounts. But that’s not all. Eller found time to also serve on the boards of the National Association of Credit Union Chairmen and the North Carolina Credit Union League.
In 1985 he was chosen as the Credit Union Volunteer of the Year in North Carolina. Then in 2002, Eller received the Mark of Excellence Award–the highest honor that can be presented to credit union people in North Carolina.
In 2005, he was recognized for his more than 25 years of faithful service and dedication to the credit union community with the National Association of Federal Credit Union’s Quarter Century Honor Roll Award.
Current Chairman Marty Goldman said, “I don’t know anyone more community service-oriented. I have been involved with the credit union since 1990 and he (Eller) has more credit union knowledge in his little finger than I do in my whole body. It has been my honor and privilege to serve with him.”
Now at age 86, Eller has slowed down just a bit. It’s time, but he left his mark on Marine FCU. We take with us this lesson from him as we say goodbye:
“I have tried to surround myself with good men and women. I found these people in the Marine Corps, the credit union movement and Rotary. They believe in service above self … making a difference in their communities. I have lived my life serving others.”
You are the true meaning of Esprit de Corps. Oorah sir!