There were whispers all over town that V.O. was dying. There was no reason for saying it any other way, and “V.O.” could mean but one person, V.O. Figge.
“How's he doing?” I asked “Bubbles” the other day.
Bubbles real name is Elizabeth, but to everyone who did business at the bank, Elizabeth Haines was simply Bubbles. It was a nickname given by her dad, when she was a 2-year-old toddler.
And while the front page and other space in the newspaper this morning will be filled with columns about V.O. Figge, I choose to pause for a moment to talk with affection about Bubbles, whose nickname may be as nearly synonymous with "old" Davenport Bank & Trust Co. as the name V.O. In that bil-lion-dollar empire, I always looked upon her as No. 2.
You entered the bank on Third Street, through polished brass doors, and first thing to your left in the cathedral-like lobby was Bubbles. She was the initial person to be faced, and directly be-hind her was V.O., available to the world. She was his assistant, his aide, a buttress to the multitudes who might seek an audience with V.O. Figge.
When I asked about V.O.'s condition, she talked softly: "It's not good." Earlier in the week, Bob Oakes, a long-time bank trust officer and confidante, had brought V.O. his morning papers to the hospital and found him rather grumpy. He thought that might be a good sign.
We didn't say much. Bubbles stared at the half-dozen car-nations in a bouquet on her desk and I looked toward V.O.'s desk behind her. There were copies of the Wall Street Journal, and some unopened mail, and a brass elephant, mindful of V.O.'s love for Africa and the safari life. His wood desk was simple, certainly not ornate for one of the shrewdest bankers in America.
I said to Bubbles: "I look over there, at that empty desk, and all I see is V.O."
Bubbles burst into tears. Not just trickles, but deep sobs. I sat, said nothing, but she acted like talking was a deep need at a mo-ment like this.
"V.O. has come to the bank, every day - even though it was no longer his - despite the new ownership taking over in 1992. That was an understanding. Deep down, it was still his bank," Bubbles said. There was an innate obligation. Anyone who had been there since 1931 - which is a long 64 years - would quite naturally feel planted in the corner space.
Bubbles has always been there, too.
"I had been so many years with V.O., I wanted to be there with him as long as needed." Bubbles smiled, a wry smile, when I asked if she received a salary.
"No, I have been working without pay since 1992." She tossed off the question as if it had not been asked.
Bubbles is remarkably young-looking, and as perky as a 50-year-old, and though tempted, I knew it was not proper to ask her age. When you get down to it, she's been at the bank as long as V.O., actually a few months longer. She came in 1931, before American Bank (the predecessor) failed during the Great Depres-sion. After the bank's collapse she stayed on, explaining, "Some of us had to be around. I needed the money to pay off a bedroom set I'd just bought."
When V.O. came aboard as a bank examiner in 1931, and later a vice president, Bubbles was a knowledgeable person to have around. "Well, I've been here ever since," said Bubbles.
I asked to see V.O.'s private office, the place he retreated to when he wanted to be alone. Bubbles hesitated, then unlocked a door to a cozy den-like place with an arch of giant elephant tusks, honey colored paneled walls and large portraits of his father (also a banker) and his brother-in-law, Henry "Hummer" Kahl, with whom he worked closely on many transactions. She touched the ragged edges of the tusks, with her finely manicured nails, and said she had just evened off the tusks with Plastic Wood.
Outside at her desk, Bubbles straightened a stack of the day's mail. One bulletin to her was called, "The Exceptional Assistant." She stared at it and said: "I won't need anything like that anymore."