Arvon Agren poses with his new book “The Other Side of Banking” at his home in Magnolia. Agren was a banker in Magnolia, Capitol Hill and other parts of Washington. Photo by Sarah Radmer
Arvon Agren poses with his new book “The Other Side of Banking” at his home in Magnolia. Agren was a banker in Magnolia, Capitol Hill and other parts of Washington. Photo by Sarah Radmer

Arvon Agren, 84, is a natural storyteller, and he’s known among his friends for his jokes. After hearing all of his funny stories about his career in banking in Seattle, they pushed Agren to write those stories down. Agren published his memoir, “The Other Side of Banking,” this February.

“It’s history of the Depression, World War II and my banking days — that’s not history so much, but in a way it is,” Agren said. “And it’s a lot of funny stories about the bank.”

The story includes details about Agren’s life growing up, peppered with pictures. Each chapter tells the story of a chapter from his life. 

Banking on a career

Agren was born in 1930 in Chehalis, Wash. His grandparents immigrated to America from Finland. He had two older brothers and lived on a muddy street but was blessed with the convenience of indoor plumbing, something not all of the neighbors had.

Agren was just a boy when World War II started. The family was on its way to cut down a Christmas tree when they stopped at the local grocery store and heard the news about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. By the time they returned home, the United States was at war.

“We’d never even heard of Pearl Harbor,” Agren said.

During the war, his father went to Alaska to build bridges for the war effort, and his mother took in boarders. The rent money and a bit of luck during a time when refrigerators where rationed, allowed them to buy a refrigerator. In the years before, his mother — who was a great cook — could only afford a small amount of meat each week. She was able to buy more with the boarders there.

Agren’s first jobs were two paper routes and picking strawberries, hops, cherries and hazelnuts in the summer. Later, he worked at a hardware store and a gas station. Upon graduation, a local gas station offered him $210 a month.

His typing teacher recommended him for a bank-trainee program, but the take-home pay was only $107. His mother made a deal with him that he wouldn’t need to pay her rent — like his brothers did — if he took the bank job.

His first job was with a bank in Chehalis. There, he experienced a massive fire and the 1949 earthquake. Eventually, Agren joined the Air Force to serve in the Korean War. He did his basic training in Texas, where he had his first real encounter with segregation.

Some of his fellow airmen were sitting in the back of the bus when the driver told them “‘You either get up in front where you belong, or you get off the bus,’” he said.

Agren did budgeting and accounting for the Air Force in England before signing up for early release.

He returned briefly to the bank in Chehalis before attending the University of Washington on the GI Bill. He worked at the University branch of the National Bank of Commerce while in college, where — and at his subsequent stints at banks in Northgate, Capitol Hill and Magnolia — Agren started racking up the funny stories he tells in his book. 

Lots of monkeying around

Agren’s best stories come from his time working at a bank in Capitol Hill. The man who owned the plumbing shop across the parking lot had a pet monkey. One day, the monkey rode under the engine’s hood all the way from Edmonds. Once the car stopped, it got loose and was running around the parking lot.

Agren went out to help round up the monkey. He got a call inside the bank, and his boss told the caller, ‘Well, Arvon’s out in the parking lot chasing a monkey.’ Word quickly spread to other branches, and “I got all of these cards and phone calls razzing me about the monkey,” he said.

Another time, a customer came in with a check addressed to a company. He became angry when Agren wouldn’t cash the check, grabbed him and pulled his tie off.

“He informed me, when he got done with me, I was going to be janitor of the place,” Agren said. The next morning, Agren came in to find a bucket and mop the staff left on his desk.

And there was the time when the Capitol Hill employees discovered a package marked “Herman’s Glass Eyeball” in one of the supposedly empty safety-deposit boxes.

In 1966, Agren was promoted to manager of a Magnolia bank. He and his wife, Dolores, bought their first house in Magnolia on West Howe Street. The village had different businesses and its own movie theater.

“The village is different now,” Agren said.

The Magnolia branch was robbed once, and the robber got away with $85,000. Agren was out of the office at the time, training his assistant to appraise homes.

Eventually, Agren would leave banking after 25 years to have a second career in real estate.

‘Bringing stories to life’

Agren is known for telling all of his entertaining stories and people have asked him, “Why don’t you get this stuff down?” He has made a couple attempts to write it down in the past. Eventually, he got in contact with a memoir writer through a Chehalis publisher.

Julie McDonald Zander writes histories for a living with Chapters of Life, her memoir company. She’s done about 40 books documenting the histories of towns, colleges and people. She lives near Chehalis and connected with Agren through the printer of the book.

Agren’s book began through a series of long interviews last April that McDonald Zander later transcribed, edited and turned into a book. Then she designed the book and added the pictures before publishing it.

“He’s a good story teller,” she said. “I never thought banking could be so hilarious.”

Agren’s personal history was different from other memoirs she’s done because he focused more on his work than his personal life.

“He was an entrepreneur from day one,” she said. “He’s just an interesting guy.

Stories like Agren’s tell current and future generations what life used to be like. He had so many stories of things we just take for granted now, she said.

“History brings stories to life,” she said. “I think every story is pretty amazing when they sit down and start telling it.”

More lives ‘yet to live’

Agren printed 100 paperback and 100 hardback books. He’ll probably print another 100 paperbacks if there’s a demand.

Agren has been telling his friends about the book and giving it away to some. When he told a friend from Chehalis about the book, “Well, he got all excited, [and] that got me excited,” he said.

“It’s just that I was always telling the stories at gatherings and so on, and people couldn’t believe them half the time,” he said. “They just said,’You should put it down,’ and I wanted to. Because I did think it was something someone would enjoy.”

As he concludes the book, Agren talks about things he’d like to do: He’s always wanted to sell men’s clothes or work in a furniture store.

“I have too many lives yet to live, and no time to accomplish them,” he wrote. “However, I don’t think I have done too badly.”

“The Other Side of Banking” is available at Magnolia Bookstore (3206 W. McGraw St.) or Amazon.com. To comment on this story, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.