Annie Sue Dinsmore was one of my all-time favorite people. She was a New Accounts Opener at the main office of First Federal Savings and Loan Association. At the start of my tenure there, I was placed under her tutelage. Annie Sue was a doyen of the bank and the community, while I was only a wet-behind-the-ears upstart Branch Manager in training. I had much to learn and Annie Sue was the ideal person to get me started off right. This was in the early 1980s, in Decatur, Alabama, back before S&Ls were legally folded into the banking system. To appreciate the historical role of S&Ls and how they helped financially limited Americans achieve the American dream of home ownership, watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the 1946 black and white movie classic, which was directed by Frank Capra and starred James Stewart.
This week, while lying in bed on the night before my birthday and for no reason apparent to me, Annie Sue came to mind. Suddenly, I realized how much she sounded like Truman Capote. He died 27 years ago this month—August 25, 1984—almost on the anniversary of my birthday. Both Annie Sue and Capote had high-pitched voices, but more than that, they perfected a certain tone that they masterfully delivered with more than a slight nasal affectation. Their similar voices likely came out of their similar upbringing. Both personalities were products of the interplay between upper middle class Southern culture and down-home Alabama dialect. By their later lives, the author from Monroeville and the banker from Decatur had even begun to look alike: diminutive and frail, but still powerful in poise and intellect. Perhaps they always shared a resemblance. I can’t believe it took me a quarter century to see those similarities. In Monroeville, Capote had Harper Lee, of “To Kill a Mockingbird” fame, to pal around with. In Decatur, thankfully for me but sadly for her, Annie Sue had to deal with me.
“Honey, first you have to know when the certificate of deposit was started in order to know which method to apply to calculate the penalty,” Annie Sue patiently explained to me, adding that iconic Annie Sue grin. It was a smile that came through as honest, not mocking—and yet somehow with a hint of condescension at the same time. I read it now as carefully honed patience toward “good people” who just aren’t quite as bright as she’d hoped. Good people in the South means someone of similar station in life to you who also happens to be reasonably trustworthy. Both criteria must be met to qualify.
Annie Sue understood the worth of a good smile. How it disarms anger. Builds trust. Exudes confidence. She could stare into the burning eyes of a customer who unexpectedly needed access to funds he’d tied up for two-and-a half years and inform him with no hint of hesitation that his penalty was going to be thousands of dollars. After delivering the fateful news, that smile of hers would appear, washing across the chasm between bank and customer to extinguish his anger like baking powder on a kitchen grease fire.
“Are you sure that’s right, Annie Sue? I mean, are you quite sure-ah? It seems rathah excessive,” he might intone. Such words were last sparks of a smothered fire. The plea came complete with lips curled at the corners like tendrils of smoke—wisps fading as they realize the futility of resistance.
“Oh, I’m quite sure-ah,” she’d say. And that was that.
Annie Sue, I miss you. I am comforted when I remember your example. You have had a great impact on my life. I studied your face and actions the same way that today I read and study powerful authors. I could use your “quite sure-ah” reassurance in today’s post-911 world. It is a world so different from my 1980s Southern experience, for I live now in New York City, where the tenth anniversary of our national tragedy looms. I’m not too happy with the knee-jerk response to terrorists that we took as a country. Still, I know America will thrive and freedom will prevail. Renewal will come when America once again has the courage and confidence to look forward rather than backward. Maybe the tenth anniversary’s passing will let that rebirth of confidence occur.
America survived the racial turmoil depicted in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and became a better country because of that struggle. In a similar vein, America will transcend her serious bout of introspection, and—like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”—America will learn to look forward again with renewed passion for the present and with trust in the greatness still to come. America remains the land of opportunity. Of that, “I’m quite sure-ah.”