Wednesday, December 9, 2015

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Bale named businessman of the year

11/26/2015 5:43:00 AM
Bale named 2015 businessman of the year

Pam Monson

A $4,000 loan established a business that has been supporting Wilmington and its residents for more than 50 years, support that would add up to countless times more than that original investment.

And this year, the owner of that business, Henry Bale, wasn't going to be allowed to turn down the nomination for business person of the year that he'd declined twice already.

Wilmington Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Wes Smith announced that Henry Bale, owner of The Bale Agency, was selected as the 2015 Business Person of the Year. He joins such notable local businessmen as Eric Fisher, Angelo Aggelopoulos, Larry Clennon and Ralph "Tuffy" Stevens as a recipient of the award that was created in 1999 to honor a business owner or manager's contribution to the community.

By the time Bale learned of a business opportunity in Wilmington in 1961, he already had a couple of years in his father's insurance agency and a stint in the National Guard under his belt. He heard about a small agency here that was for sale - the Julian Frost agency, located at the rear of the old First National Bank at the downtown intersection. He borrowed the money, bought the small business and moved in to its rented office space.

The next summer, Jim Riggs and Gayle Ferris, who worked at the arsenal but ran the Wilmington Agency, asked if he wanted to buy them out. Bale took them up on the offer, and moved up the street to a space behind Nelson's Furniture's downtown location that had an access on Jackson Street.

"I was always back door," Bale said with a laugh. He grew that back door business into a thriving agency that's protected what residents hold dear for decades.

The Bale Agency, as the business came to be known, sold insurance and real estate. Jim Gale asked Bale to sponsor him in Real Estate so Gale could obtain a license, and Gale became Bale's first salesperson. Other than Bun Partridge, they were the only licensed realtors in town.

The business moved to the southwest corner of the intersection of Baltimore and Main Street, in a two-story building owned by the First Savings and Loan. It leaked like a sieve, but didn't stop the Bale Agency from being active in the real estate game as the arsenal transitioned to inactive status.

"I got thrown out of Baltimore Street, literally," Bale said. As the bottom fell out of the savings and loan industry, the property transferred to a series of caretakers. When the last came to see the property, they offered to sell it. Bale asked if he could buy on contract; they said possibly, they'd have to get back to him.

Bale waited for word, and as winter set in, he finally called the owners. He was told he couldn't buy the building and that he had until Jan. 1 to get out; it was going to be demolished.

"The first of the year came around and I wasn't out. They sent one of their henchmen down and he wanted to take me outside," Bale said. The man reached over the counter trying to grab Bale, and Bale reached for the phone to call the police. The henchman left.

"I was afraid, I'm not a fighter," Bale said. He hired an attorney who helped buy him some time, since little commercial space was available in town during the winter of 1983-1984.

Bale purchased the laundromat that had just closed at his current location. He hired Bill Davy as his contractor, and remade the space, rebuilding all but the central masonry building with the 1-foot thick walls.

Few people realize the contributions this third-generation insurance agent has made in this community. He is a long-time member of the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club, as well as organizations serving Joliet and the three rivers area, and the Christ Episcopal Church.

As a business owner and member of the Chamber and Rotary, Bale has been involved in countless local projects, from scholarship fundraisers to delivering turkey dinners; but more importantly, he has been providing financial support to local causes for half a century, both as a business owner and a member of the community.

Bale and his wife Diane, whom he married in 1963, support the Kuzma Care Cottage, the Christian Help Association, Our Caring Closet and the local schools.

"Everybody needs," Bale commented.

Bale decided not to renew his real estate license this year - somewhat of a semi-retirement - but he and Diane still run the insurance agency by themselves. When he does finally decide to retire completely, maybe they'll travel. Henry and Diane could remember only one trip they've taken together, to Michigan, as one was always here to run the office while the other traveled with their two children, Andrew and Betsy.

Henry will be honored as the grand marshal in the Chamber's Winter Wonderland lighted Christmas parade on Saturday, Nov. 28, which steps off from the middle school campus at 5 p.m. After the parade, he will throw the switch that lights up the decorations in Claire's Corner Park.