In the 1978 movie, Superman, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) boasts to Superman (Christopher Reeve) that Hackensack is the target of one of two missiles he has fired to reap destruction on planet Earth. How did Hackensack get this dubious distinction in a blockbuster movie? According to my grandfather, Charles "Charlie" Agemian, the city was chosen in his honor. As a 10-year-old boy, I really never understood how he did it, but the story sure made me feel good. Later, I learned that Charlie had accomplished more than just Hollywood connections.
Born in 1909 in Aleppo, Syria, Charlie immigrated to the U.S. with his parents in 1914. In 1927, he was a messenger for the Bank of Manhattan, which later merged with Chase National Bank, then becoming Chase Manhattan Bank. By 1963, Charlie was executive VP for Chase and treasurer of its Overseas Banking Corp., working directly for David Rockefeller, chairman of the bank. Charlie helped finance the U.S. acquisition of the Virgin Islands and was responsible for building 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza.
Charlie, living in Tenafly with his wife, Mary, and their daughters, Sandy and Mary Lou, became a director of Hackensack Trust Company while working at Chase. Kinney Services, known for their parking garages, bought Hackensack Trust and later merged with Warner Bros. of Saturday morning cartoon fame. Warner Brothers owning a bank may sound odd, but its chief executive, Steve Ross, was brilliant in nurturing talent across many businesses. Warner also owned the Cosmos with Ross assembling one of the best soccer teams in the world.
In 1970, Ross recruited Charlie to run the bank and they renamed it Garden State National. Before his death, Ross said, "Charlie's reputation is legendary, the legend is no taller than the man". (Garden State is now, through a series of mergers and acquisitions, part of Wachovia.) Warner Bros. made the Superman movie several years later. According to Charlie, Ross placed Hackensack in the movie to thank him for his service to the company.
At Garden State, Charlie had the bank buy millions in Israeli bonds and helped convince his customers to buy the bonds as well. For this work, Charlie was awarded the Prime Minister Medal of Israel, the country’s highest civilian honor, in 1977. As a surprise at the ceremony at the Waldorf, Charlie's distant cousin, the Armenian Bishop of the Church of the Holy Sepulture in Jerusalem, presented him with a most special medal from that church.
To this day, people recall fondly how Charlie gave them their first loan based not on their assets but on their character. Buzz Rukin, now vice chairman of The Valley Hospital Foundation and a former executive at Shortline, the bus company, recalls how Charlie "made his lending decisions by how he measured the integrity of his borrowers." Charles Klatskin, the real estate developer, said, "Charlie was the best banker I knew. His famous quote to me was, 'If your banker runs out of money, he can’t be your banker.' Charlie could smell a bad borrower as well as a good borrower."
Charlie is reputed to have once quipped that he had an early-warning system for making loans. "If the potential borrower doesn't haggle over the prices of the loan, then don't make the loan," he said. "That means he doesn't intend to repay."
Charlie served on, among many others, the board of Hackensack Hospital, the Palisades Interstate Park Commission and the Armenian National Sanitarium board in Lebanon. He received a distinguished faculty award from Columbia University and the American Bankers Association's Ayres Leadership Award. He taught at Stonier School of Banking at Rutgers and received an honorary Doctorate of Commercial Science from Pace University.
Charlie retired from Garden State National in 1980 and worked for The Record for a $1 a year, advising my father and my uncle on business matters. After fully retiring eight years later, Charlie lived the rest of his life in Spring Lake, where he enjoyed telling us these wonderful stories. But my grandfather telling me the Superman story is what I remember best.
Editor’s note: Stephen A. Borg is president of North Jersey Media Group, publisher of (201) Magazine and bergen.com.