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July 27, 1999

In just a few days we'll be noting the 62 anniversary of a very historic Perry event -- the daylight robbery of the Exchange Bank. The daring deed occurred on a steamy August day in 1937 at a time when such things were more or less commonplace in the U.S. because of the Great Depression gripping the country. In peaceful little Perry, Oklahoma, however, it was momentous.

I devoted an entire chapter of The First Generation to the retelling of this story when that Perry history book was published in 1991, but now there is new information that merits a fresh look. A monthly magazine, entitled simply Good Old Days, which circulates nationally, has just published its August issue. It contains an article by Ruth Esther Willet T. Lanza, daughter of Y.V. Willett, the late president of the Exchange Bank. It is essentially her personal recollection of what happened that fateful day. The bank then was located at 635 Delaware, now the home of the Powers Abstract Co.

Ms. Lanza has published previous articles, both fiction and non-fiction, in a number of periodicals. She was just 16 years old, a summer employee at the bank and a student at Perry high school at the time of the holdup. But she was an eyewitness to all that happened, including a death threat for her father from a very nervous robber.

The perpetrator in the crime was a young man named Ray Barker, an employee of the State Highway Department division office, located at the south edge of Perry on a sweeping curve of U.S. 77, a major north-south highway that ran through this city. Although Mr. Barker worked in Perry, few people here really knew him and no one recognized him when he walked into the bank to rob it. He appeared to be nervously glancing around the lobby. It was during the noon hour on August 19, 1937.

Mr. Willett was seated at his desk near the rear of the lobby, talking to an office supply salesman from Oklahoma City. Mrs. Lillian Hunt, a pretty young teller, was at her station. Ruth Esther stood nearby engaged in casual conversation with her co-worker. Those four were the only ones in the bank when they saw Mr. Barker.

Limited space makes it impossible to tell much more than this about that fateful day. Mr. Barker, who clumsily spilled about half of his loot in an alley adjacent to the bank, eventually was captured and sentenced to prison. I am indebted to Willene Mornhinweg, Mary Ann Sherrard and Bill and Esther Smith of Perry; and to Margaret Clark of Tonkawa, my 1941 PHS classmate, for making me aware of this article and offering copies of Good 0ld Days magazine for reference. If you can find a copy, the Exchange Bank article ("The Noon Heist") alone makes it worthwhile reading, but it is filled with other stories about days gone by that should interest just about anyone. I recommend it.