February 23, 2017
By Randy Patrick, reporter for The Kentucky Standard
George Hoffman clearly remembers the day he was turned down for a loan at Wilson & Muir Bank. He needed the money to buy beer. The young entrepreneur was a beer distributor who had just gotten his license and was starting his business when he and his wife, Vi, sold their home in Louisville and moved to Bardstown in 1954.
He was familiar with the bank and its employees because he worked for Frank Fehr Brewery in Louisville, and had the drivers make deposits before they headed back to the city so they wouldn't be carrying large sums of cash after dark. "I'd pop in every once in a while…just to talk," he said.
That day, he had a load of beer, and by law, he had to pay for it in cash. "Jack Muir was the president of the bank at the time, and I went in and asked for a loan. He knew me, and I knew him, but he said, "I can't loan you any money."
"I didn't have anything!" Hoffman explained, laughing. Hoffman walked away with his head down. "I thought, 'Here I've got that load of beer coming in, and I need it. I can't get a loan anyplace else. I knew these people, and was going to do business with them," he said. "If they wouldn't lend it to me, nobody would. I was kind of discouraged.
"A bank teller, who saw Hoffman walk out and noticed he looked dejected, asked him what was wrong. Hoffman told him what happened, and the teller said to wait right there. The teller went inside and talked to Muir, and within a few minutes, came back out and told Hoffman he could go on in. He went back and got the loan, and was never refused for another.
Hoffman, 92, has recently retired as a director for Wilson & Muir. For 40 years, the bank that helped him get his start in business benefited from his wisdom and guidance, said Frank Wilson, the bank's current president and chief executive officer.
One might say Hoffman repaid both the bank and Bardstown with interest as he came to maturity. "Being a well-known and successful businessman, he brought a lot of practical experience to the bank," Wilson said.
Hoffman was never a major shareholder, but his contribution was considerable. "He was here because of his knowledge of business and his knowledge of the community," Wilson said. The reason Hoffman was able to help Wilson & Muir connect with the community was that he was so connected himself.
Almost as soon as he arrived in Bardstown, Hoffman became president of the Jaycees. Over the years, he was also a member of the Optimist Club, an officer of the Knights of Columbus, president of the St. Joseph Prep School PTA, chairman of the board of Bethlehem High School, chairman of the board of Flaget Memorial Hospital, vice president of the Bardstown-Nelson County Chamber of Commerce, a member of the trustees of St. Joseph Parish, a member of the American Legion, an active member of the local Republican Party, and a longtime Bardstown City Council member.
He was on the council during a pivotal time, when Wilson's father, Gus Wilson, was the city's mayor. During his time on the council, the city hall moved from Third Street to the former St. Joe Prep building, where it is now. Hoffman was instrumental in the city buying its cable television service, which has helped keep taxes lower than they would have been. Hoffman presided over an event honoring several Army National Guard soldiers who were killed in Vietnam. And, in 1980, when Jimmy Carter came to town, Hoffman put his partisanship aside and welcomed the president of the United States to Bardstown.
After St. Joe Prep closed, Hoffman helped a financially troubled Bethlehem by joining in the decision to make the girls school co-ed.
As well as he can remember, it was his wife who came up with the name for the Bethlehem girls' teams, the Banshees.
Viola was the choir director for many years at St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral, where the Hoffmans remain members. One thing Hoffman wouldn't mention, Wilson said, is that he once won $20,000 in a Bethlehem High School raffle and donated it to the school. "Ten percent would be OK — that's what the Bible says — and he gave it all back," the banker said.
Although his civic involvement was significant, it is perhaps as a sponsor of local sports programs that Hoffman is best remembered. "I think, at one time, I had nine softball teams," he said. "I enjoyed it more than anything else.
"And he didn't just support them with his money, but also with his time and enthusiasm.
"I have a memory, as a kid, if one of his teams was in a championship game, we would be in the car, going to New Haven or New Hope or Bardstown High," to watch the girls play, his youngest daughter, Ginna Schroeder, said. "He would be so excited.
"Hoffman was something of an athlete himself, having played as a starting guard on the University of Louisville's freshman basketball team under Coach John Hellman.Today, he is a member of the Quarterback Club and still plays golf. He has three hole-in-one trophies on the wall in his kitchen.
Hoffman grew up in Louisville, where he met Viola. He attended the university for a year, then enlisted in the Coast Guard during World War II. He was first stationed at Fort Pierce, Fla, then in California and patrolled the Pacific Coast. He never had any close calls with enemy ships or submarines, "thank goodness," he said.
George and Viola married during the war, and afterward, he went into business. Their four daughters, who grew up in Bardstown and went to Bethlehem, are Mary, Kathryn (Kathy), Caroline and Virginia (Ginna). They also have grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Hoffman worked for the Fehr Brewery, then established his own distributorship in Bardstown because it was the place he liked best of all the towns in his region, which included many counties.
"They started the business with one truck and one worker, and they raised chickens in the back," said Schroeder. But Hoffman Distributing grew and became successful, with support from the people of his adopted hometown and Nelson County, she said. "Dad lived the American dream, but Bardstown helped him make it," Schroeder said. She said her father felt he needed to give something back to the people who had given so much to him.
Maybe so, Hoffman said, but that wasn't the main reason he was so involved in community service. "I did those things because I enjoyed them," he said. "It wasn't because I felt obligated to do them. I was obligated. But I enjoyed the obligation.
"Wilson said Hoffman was influential, but unassuming. "He was low-key. He was humble. But when he spoke, it was usually something important and something we needed to hear. He didn't waste a lot of words." Those words carried weight, though.
Hoffman, for example, played a major role in making Robert Sutherland CEO of the bank before Wilson. In January, Sutherland and Wilson presented Hoffman a plaque expressing the bank's "sincere appreciation for his service."
"He was really a pillar of the community and was well-respected," Wilson said. "People who have dedicated their professional careers to the community ought to be recognized," he said.