By next August, Betty Ely Parham will have worked 65 years in the credit profession, all in Ada. This Thursday [MAY 5] she will be named the Entrepreneur of the Year at East Central University’s annual Leonard Limes Endowed Lecture in Entrepreneurship.
“I didn’t even know how to spell it,” Parham said with a laugh. “I’m just a small town business owner.”
She will be honored at a luncheon from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday in the Stanley Wagner Ballroom in the Memorial Student Union. The luncheon is open to the public. There is no cost but attendees must RSVP by calling Jordan Morris in the School of Business at 580-559-5274 or emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Parham is the owner of the Credit Bureau of Ada. Thirteen years ago she also acquired the collection departments from credit bureaus in McAlester and Durant, and just this January she purchased the Credit Bureau of Ardmore, both its collections department and credit reporting brokerage.
“Betty was selected for her spirit and passion for the Ada community. She has taken her local business and expanded operations to include several other markets in the state, and she is currently looking at other areas for expansion,” said Wendell Godwin, dean of ECU’s School of Business.
“I wanted to recognize a local leader for this year’s award and the more people I talked with, the more her name came up in conversations,” he said. “This is a wonderful way to reward a successful business leader for a career that stretches over six decades. She has made a difference in our community through her business success, her civic engagements and her church. It is an honor for East Central University to recognize such an outstanding career. She is well deserving of this recognition.”
Maybe the fact that Parham was born in a general store pointed to her future in business. At any rate, a case of the mumps essentially assured Parham’s career when she was only 18 years old.
She was born in the living quarters in the back of the store her grandparents owned in the Pimeta community three miles north of Drumright. She began school in Pimeta and moved to Ada when she was 6. Her father worked for an oil and gas company in the Fitts field.
“I didn’t go to school that year,” Parham said. “The next year we moved to Fittstown and lived on a lease. I started to school all over again. I finished the 1st and 2nd grades in one year. The 4th grade was kind of crowded, so they let some of us move into the 5th grade. By the time I reached the 5th grade, I had been in school only two years.”
Eight years later the family moved to Ada. She started high school at McLish and finished her last two years at Ada High School.
“During my last year in high school I was 16 and got a part-time job at Woolworth’s,” Parham said. “I only needed three more classes to graduate. From 9 a.m. until noon, I went to school and worked in the afternoons. I worked 33 hours a week during my senior year in high school.”
Next came two semesters at East Central University, followed by a summer job at Montgomery Ward.
“That’s where I met Richard Ely,” she said. “We both worked at Montgomery Ward.”
They were married that December and she looked for another job. She heard there was an opening at the Credit Bureau of Ada, located at 104 W. 12 at the time, in back of the Thompson Agency.
“I had been there two months when (owner) Mr. Long got the mumps and was flat on his back for three weeks,” Parham remembered. “He also had a loan company. He put the telephone by his bed at home. I made all the loans – and I was 18 years old. I wrote up contracts and he approved them over the phone. That got my foot in the door. But I did all right.
“An 18-year-old doesn’t have a lot of self confidence,” she added. “Mr. Long had been a lieutenant colonel. He ran the office like the military. I didn’t think I’d last 30 days, but I worked there 33 years. He trusted me and I did my best for him.”
One of her fellow employees was Madeline Shipley, an ECU student who married Rudolph Hargrave. They became the parents of ECU President John Hargrave.
Ten years later, Parham and her husband had been taking night classes at ECU. He was an accountant for OG&E by then, and any promotion meant moving to another city, something they didn’t want to do.
“So Mr. Long sold the credit bureau to Richard and me,” Parham said. “I stayed in the loan business because I wanted Richard to be the manager (of the credit bureau).
The businesses moved to 131 W. 12, at 12th and Townsend. Things were going well when Richard Ely died in an automobile accident in 1971. The young widow had to decide what to do.
“I had worked 10 years in the business before we bought the credit bureau. Richard had run it 15 years when he died,” she said. “My dad wanted me to sell the business. He thought it would be too much for me. I said, ‘Let me try.’ At the time, women didn’t do such jobs.”
Bonnie Shields had started working for the Elys the week after they opened.
“I told her, ‘If you’ll help me, I can do the accounting and you can help manage,’” Parham said. “But I kept my job with Mr. Long.”
The two businesses moved to the present location, 304 E. 12th, in 1978, each occupying one side of the building. Long sold his business in 1978.
Parham had continued taking classes at ECU whenever she could and eventually completed both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business education.
“It took 20 years to get two degrees,” she said with a smile.
When Parham started working, everything was done manually, from typewriters to the hand-cranked mimeograph machines that printed bulletins for the business. Most businesses were local, had their own credit departments and 30-day accounts.
“We were very careful to be accurate,” she added, “because we knew we were affecting peoples’ lives. When we left the office, we were not permitted to talk about what we’d done that day.”
When bank credit cards entered the world and were mailed to people who had not even requested them, including Parham’s 14-year-old son, Richard, the credit bureau did a lot of reporting for bank card companies, she said.
The next big thing, 28 years ago, was computerizing credit reporting files with the Credit Bureau of Oklahoma City. She hired part-time workers to convert 50,000 files for the system.
Today, Parham’s younger son, Steve, manages the business. He and two partners also purchased the Retail Merchants Association in Lawton last year.
She works six hours a day, unless she decides to take a day off. She opens the mail, pays the bills, checks to see if anything needs her attention and does the payroll and taxes.
“I still like to do bookwork,” she said. “And I go to all these meetings. I have a luncheon about three times a week, and the other days I have lunch with Steve and my brother, Earl Bingamon.”
“All those meetings” refers to the organizations she still serves. She has been president of six of them. As president of the Washington Grade School Society she helped start the first cafeteria at that school. She also has been president of the Credit Women’s Breakfast Club, the American Association of University Women, the Ada Toastmasters Club, Prime Timers and Associated Credit Bureaus of Oklahoma.
She serves on the Boards of Directors of the Valley View Foundation and the Ada Recycling Coalition. She is a member of the scholarship committees for the Ada Kiwanis Club and the Business and Professional Women’s Club and serves on two committees at the First United Methodist Church.
She was named the 2010 Kiwanian of the Year and earlier the Business and Professional Women’s Club’s Employer of the Year as well as the Woman of the Year.
“I’ve enjoyed working in my community,” she said. “It’s been good to me. I always felt like I need to pay back.”
Along the way she has traveled to Europe, Asia, the Caribbean and Hawaii and Alaska.
She was married to Bill Parham, the retired southeast district director of the Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Service, from 1991 until his death in 2007.
“After Richard died, I had been single for a long time. I married Bill in 1991. My older son, Richard, married Bill’s daughter, Carolyn, 20 years before we married,” she said. “I never would have done that if I hadn’t known him so long.”
In addition to her sons, Richard, who lives in the Dallas area, and Steve, of Ada, she has five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Parham has no plans to retire.
“I’m going to die with ink on my fingers,” she laughed. “If I retired, what would I do? Sit at home and twiddle my thumbs?
“I’ve always liked to work. No one ever had to tell me to get up and go to work.”
Leonard Limes, a geologist, attorney and entrepreneur from Konawa who lived in New Orleans, established the lectureship to emphasize entrepreneurism in 2000 with a $25,000 gift to the ECU Foundation Inc. He attended ECU for a year and a half in 1946-47 then completed a degree in geology from the University of Oklahoma. After he went to night school in New Orleans to earn a law degree, he and two partners formed a law firm for five years. He established an oil and gas exploration company and worked as an attorney specializing in oil- and gas-related legal matters.
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