After years at Wells Fargo, Richard Cooley became chairman, chief executive and president of Seafirst Bank. He also taught in the University of Washington’s executive MBA program.
Richard “Dick” Cooley, a former chief executive of Wells Fargo and a ubiquitous name in banking for decades in the Pacific Northwest, died last Wednesday at his home in Seattle. He was 92.
His death was confirmed by the Bonney-Watson funeral home.
Mr. Cooley worked his way up the corporate ranks at Wells Fargo, helping to turn what once was a relatively small San Francisco-area lender into a major regional bank.
He graduated from Yale in 1944 and joined Wells Fargo in 1949. In 1966, he became president and chief executive of the bank and in 1978 was named chairman and chief executive.
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The bank’s loan portfolio and profits rose steadily during his tenure, as the bank expanded its reach to become a force in banking throughout California and other Western states.
In 1975, Mr. Cooley’s name surfaced on a list of wealthy people and corporate executives the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) said it had planned to kidnap. The SLA, a revolutionary group operating in San Francisco, was responsible for the kidnapping of the newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst a year earlier.
Mr. Cooley’s time at Wells Fargo was not without blemish. In 1981, the bank was rocked by a $21.3 million embezzlement scandal involving a Wells Fargo employee and a boxing promoter. At the time, it was believed to be one of the biggest bank embezzlement cases on record.
Addressing the theft, Mr. Cooley said, “We’ve made some changes in our systems and procedures so that it can’t happen again.”
In late 1982, Mr. Cooley surprised the banking world by resigning from Wells Fargo with little notice. But he did not stay retired long. Just days later, Seafirst Bank, a smaller regional lender based in Seattle, announced it had hired Mr. Cooley as chairman, chief executive and president.
The move to Seafirst presented a challenge for Mr. Cooley. The bank was weighed down by a pool of bad loans, many of them involving the oil and gas industry. Mr. Cooley’s strategy was to engineer a merger in 1983 with the predecessor of today’s Bank of America. The deal, which at the time was one of the largest mergers between banks based in different states, allowed Seafirst to continue operating under its name and with its own management team.
Mr. Cooley, known as Dick, remained at Seafirst until he retired in 1990, but would continue for an additional four years as chairman of the bank’s executive committee.
Richard Pierce Cooley was born on Nov. 25, 1923, in Dallas to Victor Cooley and the former Helen Pierce.
His studies at Yale were interrupted when he enlisted in the Army as a pilot during World War II. He lost his right arm in a plane crash over France.
Before the accident, he was a right-handed squash and tennis player at Yale. He later trained himself to use his left arm and continued to excel in sports, especially squash.
He is survived by his fourth wife, Bridget McIntyre Cooley; four children from his first marriage: Leslie, Pierce, Sheila Fagan and Mark; and numerous stepchildren. A son from his first marriage, Sean, died last year.
In retirement, Mr. Cooley’s interests extended beyond banking. For more than two decades, he was co-instructor of a class titled “CEO and the Board” in the University of Washington’s executive MBA program.
Mr. Cooley taught the class so long, said Louise Kapustka, the program’s executive director, that some of the earliest student attendees had come back in recent years as guest speakers.
A memorial service will be held at St. James Cathedral Parish at 804 Ninth Ave. in Seattle on Nov. 1, at 3:30 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, the Cooley family requests that donations be made to the Fulcrum Foundation, which provides scholarships and help for the parochial-school system.