If you’re a current subscriber, log in below. If you would like to subscribe, please click the subscribe tab above.
Username and Password Help
by Mike Avitt
What do you do after a seventy-four year career? Well, if you’re Bill French, you shoot for seventy-five. And although this amazing story does not yet have an ending, it does have a beginning.
It all started on July 6, 1929 in the Woodland area of Monroe Township, Ringgold County. William Havely French was born to Howard E. and Amy (Havely) French, joining older sister Betty Jo. Bill helped on the farm and attended Woodland School. After graduating high school at Kellerton in 1948, Bill worked on the Beck farm. Bill had excelled at bookkeeping in school and this news reached the ears of Clyde Lesan, owner of the Clyde Lesan Company, a Mount Ayr business dealing in abstracts, farm loans, real estate, and insurance. Mr. Lesan approached Bill with a job offer and Bill began work at 100 South Taylor Street on August 30, 1948.
The Clyde Lesan Co. had been started as the F. E. Sheldon Company decades earlier. After many years as an employee, Lesan bought the firm in 1937. The business had moved to the former Iowa State Bank building at 100 S. Taylor around 1932.
The staff in 1948 included owner Clyde Lesan and his brother Glenn, W. B. (Burl) Cunning, Clinton Allyn, Bernice (Moore) Sheil, and Helen (Thompson) Schardein. Allyn passed away in 1949 and was replaced by Art Palmer. Helen was in charge of teaching Bill the abstract business and other aspects of the agency. The building, built as Citizens Bank in 1892, had two floors of business offices. The basement was leased out to Jess Skinner as a barber shop, and later, to Bill Wheeler, another barber.
On August 5, 1949, Bill married Retha May Motsinger and the couple would have three children: Jeff, Robert, and Amy. In the 1950s, Bill was gaining knowledge and experience in the business he loved, but business is always changing. On April 1, 1960, Burl Cunning bought the interest of Clyde and Glenn Lesan in the Clyde Lesan Co. and the new name was W. B. Cunning and Co. Burl Cunning had been with the firm since 1927.
The changes continued in the 1960s with Dan Cunning, Burl’s son, joining the business in 1965. The building was remodeled, inside and out, in 1967. There had been a rotation in staff except for Burl, Helen, and Bill.
In 1972, it was decided to divide the business. Bill and Helen would stay in the old bank building and take the abstract agency, along with half of the insurance and real estate accounts. Burl and Dan moved to the Wilson building at 112 W. Madison and established W. B. Cunning & Co., Inc. on January 1, 1973. The Cunnings took full control of the farm management agency from the former business. Dan Cunning had majored in farm management at Iowa State University.
Bill and Helen’s new business was called French & Schardein Agency. Both businesses continued to experience success, primarily because of the quality of character of all involved. All this time, laws and rules were changing, competitors came and went, and the players were getting older.
Helen Schardein retired from the business in December 1986 and Bill’s daughter Amy came to join the William H. French Agency. Deb Creveling joined the agency in 1994 and she is still there today. Bill’s wife, Retha, passed away on January 27, 2007.
Of course, Bill has hundreds of stories from the past seventy-four years. He recalls auto liability laws requiring drivers to have insurance. He wrote a policy for Roy Davenport in 1948 for liability insurance. Roy paid $16 for a year’s coverage. He remembers Clyde Lesan installing extra fuel barrels for the fuel-oil furnace after shortages were predicted.
Bill was active at the First Christian Church and the Masonic Lodge until the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. Two of Bill’s main activities today are reading and trying to keep track of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The William H. French Agency sold off the abstract business years ago and insurance is the majority of the business today. The internet and other technology has changed the industry immensely. It’s a different world than the one Bill walked into in 1948.
When asked why he still comes to work everyday he replies, “I love the business and the personal contact. I enjoy helping people.” When asked about the most important lesson seventy-four years of work has taught him he says, “To keep a positive attitude and look for the good in people.”
The laws and the industry have changed. The people and the policies are different. Technology has turned the business inside out, but one thing remains constant…..William Havely French is at the office at 100 S. Taylor ready to assist you.