New book revisits early 20th century Lansing banking crisis

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Bruce Philip Miller’s new book, “Once Upon a Time in Lansing,” tells the story of a Lansing bank failure in the ’30s and its unlikely manager, Joseph Gleason. He said the idea for the book originated when he was just a young boy.

“My mother, Mimi, just dropped the name Joseph Gleason, who was her first boss out of high school in 1942. She worked with him in the Olds Tower, and family lore said he helped with a ‘problem’ with a family house,” he said.

When his grandmother died, his aunts and uncles gathered in her memory, and he got a different version of their origin story

“The uncles got talking about things they did and shouldn’t have done as youths. They saw their childhood very differently, and their stories were compelling and hilarious,” Miller said. “The book idea about Gleason was always rattling around in the back of my head, but I didn’t dig into until the pandemic hit.”

With the pandemic raging, Miller was “marooned by the plague” and began researching the bank failure of Capital National Bank by using online search engines. 

After reading contemporaneous coverage, his initial reaction was that his mother’s recollections of her boss Gleason as a kind and decent man might have been a stretch. 

The new book tells succinctly the story of an extremely difficult time in Lansing history and the larger-than-life story of some of its major players, such as R. E. Olds, who not only founded two car companies but started Capital National Bank in 1906, which provided loans for home owners and captains of industry alike.

Joseph Gleason, one year younger than Olds, had left Lansing for Colorado, where he learned the paint trade, in the 1880s. He returned to Lansing and founded the Silver Lead and Paint Co. 

Miller said he relied on David O’Leary, son of Vincent and current proprietor of O’Leary Paint Co., to provide historical perspective for the book. 

Joseph and his wife, Mary, became benefactors of St. Mary’s Catholic Church and the Gleasons informally adopted Vincent O’Leary, who attended St. Mary’s and would later become the owner of the paint company. 

Miller’s grandfather and grandmother Frank and Martha Haddad were also members of St. Mary’s Church. In the book, the author uses his own family experiences in Lansing and his mother’s nexus with Gleason to flesh out the story. Part of that story delves into the immigration of Syrians to the United States and their early years in Lansing. Frank Haddad worked at a variety of auto-related jobs before his death in 1934

In 1929, Olds broke ground for the 23-story Olds Tower, now known as the Boji Tower, its lobby to hold Capital National Bank. Then in 1931, rumors spread that another bank, Lansing City National, was at risk of failing. Although Capital National Bank was in no danger, Olds took the steps to merge the two banks. However, the move would only forestall the ultimate bank failures, which were steamrolling the country.

Although not critical to the book’s arc, Miller retells the story of the 1932 mass shooting at Capital National Bank. D. J. Mead shot six bank employees, killing one before committing suicide.

When bank closures began cascading, Gleason was appointed as receiver for Capital National, Bank and he soon was under fire from the city’s industrial leaders because their assets in the bank were frozen. Men like Earl Goodnow, president of Atlas Drop Forge, proposed a plan to pay off all the larger depositors in full, who would then loan money back to the bank to pay off other account holders and end Gleason’s receivership. Gleason said no and several court case later he prevailed.

“Prominent people weren’t fond of Gleason,” the author said.

During this time, Miller’s grandfather died. His grandmother used insurance money to open a small grocery store on Cedar Street, later purchasing a small house on Cedar Street and turning their former home into a boarding house. In the book, Miller writes how a fire destroyed the boarding house and his grandmother was then unable to make loan payments, putting her own home at risk. Gleason heard about the dire situation from Mimi Haddad and arranged a private loan.

Miller leaned heavily on the writings of Lansing State Journal columnist Earle Pitt, a cantankerous old-school journalist whose tongue in cheek writing style impressed the author.

“He was so funny to me, and he appeared to be in on the joke,” he said, commenting on Pitt’s coverage of the dust off between Lansing’s corporate heavy weights. “The book is the dramatic story of a couple of Lansing businessmen; one is sung, Olds, and one is unsung, Gleason.”

The cover of the book shows a misty evening photo of the Olds Tower taken by Gerald G. “Doc” Granger, a photographer for the Lansing State Journal in the ’30s. Granger was a noted salon photographer and was honored with an exhibition of his work at the Smithsonian.

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